Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Plutocracy 2, Theology 0

You have to take good news from Republicans where you find it, and the uplift from Michigan and Arizona is that greed has prevailed over religious zealotry as Mitt Romney wins with the help of older, better-educated and high-income voters who think the economy and the budget deficit are the major issues this year.

Looking ahead to Super Tuesday, this bodes better for the electorate as the Ayatollah Santorum surge of theocratic fervor starts to fade back into the pack of such previous would-be Romney stoppers as Michele Bachmann’s Tea Party nullification, Rick Perry’s unhorsed Washington hatred, Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 economic specials and Gingrich's three-ring marital history—-a sad circus of clowns to express the will of a major political party united only by hatred of a sitting President.

The most recent GOP candidate fails to see the bitter comedy. “This,” says John McCain, “is like watching a Greek tragedy. It’s the negative campaigning and the increasingly personal should have stopped long ago. Any utility from the debates has been exhausted, and now it’s just exchanging cheap shots and personal shots followed by super PAC attacks.”

McCain, notes Maureen Dowd, “should know from Greek tragedy...When a man who was accused of having an illegitimate black child in the 2000 South Carolina primary thinks this is the worst ever, the GOP is really in trouble.”

Meanwhile, the Dow closes above 13,000, unemployment is inching down and Barack Obama’s favorability numbers are rising. Even as Romney savors his Michigan victory, the President is on the attack, telling an audience of auto workers:

“Some even said we should ‘let Detroit go bankrupt.’ Think about what that choice would have meant for this country, if we had turned our backs on you, if America had thrown in the towel, if GM and Chrysler had gone under. The suppliers, the distributors that get their business from these companies, they would have died off...

“More than one million Americans across the country would have lost their jobs in the middle of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. In communities across the Midwest, it would have been another Great Depression. And then think about all the people who depend on you. Not just your families, but the schoolteachers, the small business owners, the server in the diner who knows your order, the bartender who’s waiting for you to get off...Their livelihoods were at stake as well.”

Mitt Romney may be beating off the last of his challengers for the nomination, but the 2012 first team on the other side is waiting in the wings.

Update: Make the heading of this post read 1½ to ½ as final Michigan figures show Romney winning the popular vote but splitting the delegates.

Santorum has a point in rebuking reporters, “Don’t give Romney all the spin.” Problem is, it’s not just the media but many sane Republicans who find it hard to believe that such an off-the-wall candidate is still in the race.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

GOP Class Warfare Goes Nuclear

As Santorum says Obama is “a snob” for encouraging all Americans to go to college, Romney defends telling Michigan voters his wife has two Cadillacs.

After months of savaging the President for promoting class warfare in debates, the GOP race is down to a man who wants to be elected for amassing half a billion dollars against a rival riling low-rent rebellion to expose the social fault line in Republican ranks more clearly than ever.

“You talk to most kids who go to college who are conservatives," Santorum tells George Stephanopoulos, “and you are singled out, you are ridiculed...I can tell you personally I went through a process where I was docked for my conservative views.”

Claiming that perhaps as many as 62 percent of students who enter college “with some sort of faith commitment” leave without it, he promises to make sure that “conservative and more mainstream, common-sense conservative principles that have made this country great are reflected in our college courses and with college professors.”

This kind of autobiographical paranoia recalls the 1950s when I published an award-winning report praised by Harry Truman, “Fear on the Campus,” on what McCarthyism was doing to suppress freedom of thought in American colleges.

A return to those dark days is offered by Santorum, who now says he “almost threw up” on reading JFK’s 1960 pledge as the first Catholic president to maintain separation of church and state, damning it as “a vision saying, ‘No, faith is not allowed in the public square. I will keep it separate...I will have nothing to do with faith. I won’t consult with people of faith.’ It was an absolutist doctrine that was abhorrent at the time.”

Against such barking fantasy, a clueless Romney is reaping endorsements in Arizona and Michigan, even from those who disagree with his denunciation of the auto bailout against all evidence that 1.45 million people are now working as a direct result of the $80 billion intervention.

Then Romney takes a day out from Michigan to go downscale with the NASCAR crowd in Florida, offering a not-too-swift comment on an unlikely winner who capitalizes on an eleven-car pileup (a metaphor for the GOP race?): “That happens now and then. The guy that was hanging back suddenly becomes the winner.”

As Maureen Dowd puts it, “contenders in the Hester Prynne primaries are tripping over one another trying to be the most radical, unreasonable and insane candidate they can be. They pounce on any traces of sanity in the other candidates--be it humanity toward women, compassion toward immigrants or the willingness to make the rich pay a nickel more in taxes--and try to destroy them with it.”

The promoters of such class warfare are vying to be the man with his finger on the nuclear trigger who appoints Supreme Court Justices with a chance that, between now and November, some domestic or world crisis could actually put one of them in that position.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Oscar Memory: A Life in the Movies

Tomorrow night we wallow once again in the soft porn of fame, fashion and film clips, half-watching Academy Awards to movies most of us haven’t seen and artisans we never heard of.

Yet, again this year amid the usual scene stealers, some of them canine, I will be thinking of a college classmate who devoted his life to being an anonymous foot soldier in that dream brigade.

One of these years, the Academy may want to devote the appropriate screen time of several seconds to the memory of all those Unknown Extras.

In the 1982 movie “Tootsie,” Dustin Hoffman in drag is auditioning for a soap opera when the producer asks, “I’d like to make her look a little more attractive. How far can you pull back?”

With no hesitation, the cameraman answers, ”How do you feel about Cleveland?”

That was the high point of my friend Les Goldman’s acting career—-in truth, it was almost all of it. He was still getting small royalty checks at his death several years ago. The only other remains of decades on film sets, in overheated halls and freezing streets are glimpses of him as human scenery in hundreds of movies.

You have to dig deep to find his name in the Internet Movie Data Base to learn he once was in judges’ robes for the first episodes of “Law and Order” in the early 1990s.

As sons of immigrants, Les and I spent our childhoods in dark movie houses, watching how people behaved and talked in places where the ways of our parents would never do. The movies taught us how to be American.

After World War II, he went to law school, passed the bar but never practiced. It was only on movie sets doing extra work after joining the Screen Actors Guild that he found his calling in a world that had enchanted us as kids.

Once, when I asked if there wasn’t a better way of spending days and nights than sipping stale coffee and schmoozing for a small check and no credit, he answered with the classic punchline, “What? And give up show business?”

He was still doing it well into his seventies, sharing a joke with Jack Nicholson here, teasing Kim Basinger there while the lights and cameras were being readied. When the film was ready to roll, he moved back, staying in character and out of the spotlight. In the era of no-shame reality shows, Les made an art of fading into the background.

Now, on sleepless nights, I can always find him in an old movie, part of a crowd in “9½ Weeks” or “Cotton Club” or, my favorite, behind a deli counter in “When Harry Met Sally” while Meg Ryan shows Billy Crystal how women fake an orgasm.

With Meg moaning and customers staring, the camera keeps circling and, in the background, there is Les in a long white apron ignoring the hubbub and solemnly slicing salami, never looking up—-as always, staying in character, keeping it real, making the scene work.

He never gave up show business.

Update: At this year’s Oscars, an eerie moment for me when a montage of past movie moments ends with the “When Harry Met Sally” scene, showing Les Goldman clear as day at the center rear of the frame between Meg Ryan and Billy Chrystal, before the camera shifts to another Extra, director Rob Reiner’s mother, at another table to deliver the punchline at Meg’s gyrations, “I’ll have whatever she’s having.”

Thursday, February 23, 2012

GOP Debate Dog That Didn't Bark

The possibly final Republican faceoff was notable for what didn’t happen, the classic Sherlock Holmes clue of the dog that didn’t bark in the night.

Neither the moderator nor Santorum’s opponents pressed him to explain his positions on religious issues that have been making headlines, so extreme that even Rush Limbaugh concedes he must answer because they make him look like “an absolute religious nut and wacko.”

But none of the debate dogs barked on the subject as they went at him on government spending and earmarks.

Santorum was asked about contraception but not Satan. He gave waffling answers about his votes to fund Planned Parenthood as well as a short speech about young poor women having babies that sounded as if it were leading to an argument for birth control but ended as an endorsement of abstinence and family values.

CNN’s John King may have still been traumatized after being mugged by Newt Gingrich at a previous debate, but why did the others hold back?

The most likely answer tells us about the state of the GOP today, held captive by the Tea Party and the Religious Right to the point that it may be politically dangerous to ask a Presidential candidate what he meant by saying “mainline Protestantism in this in shambles” and “gone from the world of Christianity as I see it.”

If Santorum somehow manages to get the nomination, Democrats may not be so shy.

Update: Two New York Times columnists have an off-page dialogue about the turn the election is taking.

“You may be right,” says Gail Collins to David Brooks, “that the big issue for America now is class, not race or gender. But in this presidential campaign, gender rules. Really, sex rules. Who’d have thought?”

“Class is gender,” Brooks replies. “Specifically men. The wage stagnation and inequality stories are largely stories about how badly men have been doing over the past few decades. Women’s incomes have been up, up, up.

“So let’s return to our normal subject. Men, men, men. Let’s go back and have a normal election: men talking about themselves. The love that won’t shut up.”

After the GOP makes its least worst choice, Barack Obama may have something to say about that.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Devil of a Mess

Rush Limbaugh is not happy with Rick Santorum’s Satan speech.

“It’s part of the predictable attempt to impugn Santorum as an absolute religious nut and wacko,” El Rushbo says. “But he did say these things and he’ll have to have an answer...I don’t know. It’s just not the kind of stuff you hear a presidential candidate talk about.”

Ahead of tonight’s debate, Santorum is trying to explain away what he told Catholic students only four years ago: “We look at the shape of mainline Protestantism in this country, and it is in shambles. It is gone from the world of Christianity as I see it.”

Now, the candidate insists, “These are questions that are not relevant to what’s being discussed in America today. What we’re talking about in America today is trying to get America growing.”

Lots of luck with that, but perhaps even more troubling is that Santorum has opened a Pandora’s box of religiosity, and the usual clerical suspects are all over TV, mouthing off about whether Mormons are Christians and rehashing claims that the President is a Muslim because his father was.

Talking about fathers, the Rev. Billy Graham’s son is getting face time on cable, questioning both Romney’s and Obama’s Christian credentials on those scores.

Franklin Graham comes by such beliefs as an inheritance. In tapes released a few years ago made on the eve of the Great Unindicted Co-Conspirator’s abrupt departure from office, the Rev. Billy can be heard telling Nixon, "Congratulations on everything," and "I believe the Lord is with you."

In that conversation, the pastor of presidents agrees with Nixon’s low assessment of American Jews and calls them members of “the synagogue of Satan.”

For true believers, God may be omnipotent, but Satan gets around in modern America.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Insanity in a Sweater Vest

Twice I have seen America on the brink of losing the boundaries of political reason that have kept us stable and free for well over two centuries—-during the McCarthy uproar of the 1950s and in the Nixon era leading to the resignation of a lawless president before he could be impeached.

Rick Santorum is no McCarthy or Nixon (yet) but he has the same wild disregard for truth and rational discourse and, like his predecessors, is being abetted by a compliant media giving “equal-handed” treatment to fear-mongering and traditional standards of sanity.

Sarah Palin elicited outrage by positing death panels for the old, but Santorum goes further by claiming that, under new health care laws, doctors are doing the same with newborns:

“Let’s take a child who is high cost and who...the medical profession increasingly is looking at as less utility, less value than others in society: ‘I don’t want to see this patient. This is going to be a real cost for me. I’m going to get nailed on this one, so let’s minimally treat, let’s not treat all because it’s going to be such a cost to the system.’ That’s happening now.”

Evidence for infanticide? None, except in Santorum’s imagination, but horse-race journalism is too interested in primary polls to “nail” him on such wild charges.

Instead, the GOP nomination contest is now not about the economy but a holier-than-thou zealot’s prescriptions for a diverse nation, as superPACs, including one funded by a firearms manufacturer, line up to support Santorum.

While approving of his theological bent, the Wall Street Journal advises him to lie low while campaigning: “Mr. Santorum must resist the temptation to run for president on ‘Humanae Vitae,’ the 1968 papal encyclical prohibiting artificial contraception...A presidential simply not the vehicle for clarifying the coherence of the Catholic Church's view of human sexuality.” But once he gets into the White House, separation of church and state would be a memory.

Neither Joe McCarthy nor Nixon was this far off the American track before being derailed by majority opinion. In tomorrow night’s debate, hapless Mitt Romney will be prepped to attack Santorum’s far-out views but may only succeed in eliciting sympathy for him.

Among media questioners, will there be even a pale version of Edward R. Murrow or Woodward and Bernstein to bring out the essence of what the nation is facing now?

Update: Payback for Santorum’s loony past starts with unearthing a 2008 speech at Florida’s Ave Maria University in which he warned, “Satan has his sights on the United States of America!”

In the speech, he warned, “Satan is attacking the great institutions of America, using those great vices of pride, vanity and sensuality as the root to attack all of the strong plants that have so deeply rooted in the American tradition.”

For those who believe in Satan, the question arises: Could Santorum be a double agent?

Monday, February 20, 2012

Downton Abbey, Past and Future

Mary and Matthew are finally engaged, Sybil has had an off-screen baby, but Bates is in prison.

The sublime soap opera leaves us bereft for a year, with only deconstruction of the past and surmise for the future as consolation after taking us through World War I and the Spanish flu to the 1920s.

It’s a sign of Downton Abbey’s hold on our imaginations that the critical mind, while wallowing in its pleasures, can’t resist nagging at inconsistencies.

Time, for example. When in Season 2, Mary and Edith rescue Sybil from running away with the chauffeur, they remind her she is 21 and can choose her life openly. That’s in 1918, which would have made her 15 at the start of Season 1, not the shapely young woman of the first episodes.

During the war, the troublemaker Branson is barely restrained by Carson the butler from dumping a silver bowl of sludge on a British general. Why, then, is he still in the garage two years later, tinkering with the cars and seducing the youngest daughter of the house?

In an interview, creator Julian Fellowes reveals his admiration for American serialized TV from “Mad Men” and “Sex and the City” back to “NYPD Blue” and “West Wing.”

Asked if Downton will lose some of its sexual tension (as “Cheers” did when Diane and Sam finally got it on), Fellowes admits worrying about the alternative for Mary and Matthew, choosing to “go on with it too long. There is a moment when the audience just thinks, ‘Oh, for [goodness'] sake.’ You somehow have to pre-empt that.”

Trying to predict what he will do in Season 3 is dicey, but Fellowes has shown a penchant for borrowing from old movies, as he did lifting the flower show segment from “Mrs. Miniver” and temporarily putting Matthew into the position of characters from “Lady Chatterly’s Lover,” “The Sun Also Rises” and “The Barefoot Contessa.”

He may have to resort to the resolution of “Rebecca” to get Bates out of the slammer. In that classic movie, a vengeful wife stricken with cancer stages her own death to convict her innocent husband of murdering her. Start checking out the first Mrs. Bates’ physicians.

Next year, the arrival of Shirley MacLaine as Cora’s mother brings up delicious possibilities of a worthy foil for Maggie Smith’s dowager. With MacLaine as Martha Levinson, Lord Grantham will be in a special hell between his doughty mum and a Jewish-American mother-in-law.

All this brings to mind a fantasy scene from one of Elizabeth McGovern’s early movies, the 1983 “Lovesick,” in which Dudley Moore imagines himself as an aged loser tottering after her and a rival in a carriage in period costume driving off happily from a manor house very much like Downton Abbey.

Until next January, we will all have to totter after reruns and what we can imagine comes next.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Political Season of Spite

The most mundane man in Washington puts his finger on the prevailing mood. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, fed up with the Republicans blocking judicial nominees, says they are being “being held up out of spite.”

Spite, malice, resentment increasingly pervade the American landscape in an election year that promises to be uglier than any in living memory.

It recalls the farmer who, upon being told he will be granted a wish but that his hated neighbor will be given twice as much, replies “Pluck out one of my eyes.”

As Reid asks the President to unilaterally appoint scores of judges during Congressional recess, the White House agrees that “Republican obstructionism is an overtly political maneuver to thwart the president’s agenda” while waffling on whether to follow his lead.

Venom spreads across the country in GOP primaries.

In Georgia, Newt Gingrich tells former neighbors, “Let’s be clear what this election is all about. We believe in the right to bear arms, and we like to bear the arms in our trucks.”

Clean-cut Mitt Romney’s SuperPAC sugar daddy keeps suing media critics for pointing out that his wealth comes from a company selling dietary supplements and cleaning products in what Michigan regulators have called “the marketing and promotion of an illegal pyramid.”

On the stump, Rick Santorum says public schools are “anachronistic” and that Barack Obama is guided by “some phony theology. Oh, not a theology based on the Bible, a different theology.”

The American political landscape is unreeling backward at warp speed, and philosophical Harry Reid has identified a key element.

Will voters reverse the momentum? Or spite themselves by putting one of these bozos in the White House?

Update: On Sunday TV, Santorum is still holding his medieval fort. “I wasn’t suggesting that the president’s not a Christian,” he says, but linking him to what “radical environmentalist” believe:

“The earth is not the objective. Man is the objective, and I think that a lot of radical environmentalists have it upside down.”

Not backing down from his criticism of education, the candidate who home-schooled his own kids insists, “I think the parent should be in charge.”

So much for the votes of environmentalists and teachers.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Passions of the GOP Good Ole Boys

After months of complaints about unseen money men unleashing SuperPAC attack ads under the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, one of them steps forward to show us what we’ve been missing in not hearing directly from them.

Rick Santorum’s backer, born-again billionaire Foster Freiss, shows up on MSNBC to tell Andrea Mitchell his views on the Pill, “Back in my days, they used Bayer Aspirin for contraceptives. The gals put it between their knees and it wasn’t that costly.”


In a time when GOP candidates and their good-ole-boy backers should put aspirin between their teeth to control babbling about what is right for half of the population whose views none of them represents, women legislators in Washington are walking out on male counterparts dominating Congressional hearings on contraception.

No one expects the GOP final four to button their lips, but the good news is that a scheduled TV debate before Super Tuesday won’t take place because Mitt Romney and Ron Paul have backed out. It may finally have dawned on them that Santorum won his frontrunner status with all that free exposure in umpteen talkathons.

Meanwhile, post-Valentine Day, Romney is in Michigan trying to make voters forget he was against the bailout that led to General Motors’ biggest profit ever by waxing poetic about the landscape:

“I was born and raised here. I love this state. It seems right here. The trees are the right height. I like seeing the lakes. I love the lakes...I love American cars, and long may they rule the world.”

As always, Republicans are channeling their passion into the inanimate rather than people.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Broadening Obama's Coattails

As the GOP wannabe dogfight gets uglier, the actual President is on a winning streak that parallels Linsanity in the sports world.

In eye-to-eye confrontation, John Boehner has just blinked after more than a year of being held hostage by his Tea Party caucus, backing not only a bill to extend a $100 billion payroll tax rollback without spending cuts to pay for it but agreeing to extend unemployment benefits and prevent a large slash in reimbursements to doctors who accept Medicare.

In addition, the Speaker is backpedaling on a crucial $260 billion highway bill, sending it to the House floor in three pieces to avoid defeat by using a procedural maneuver that would allow it to be recombined after each segment passes. Such a bypass might overcome intra-party wrangling over GOP legislation estimated to leave a $78 billion hole in the highway trust fund.

In the context of last year’s temper tantrum leading to a national credit downgrade, this signals a turning point for responsible Republicans who finally recognize that, if they don’t find a way to legislate, they may be hammered at the ballot box in November for wall-to-wall obstruction in Congress.

Such anxiety will only be heightened by a new poll showing President Obama with a solid lead over each of his potential GOP opponents, including 48 percent to 42 over Romney, who was even with him last month, and 49 percent to 41 over Rick Santorum, even before he undergoes a barrage of negative ads from Mitt’s SuperPACS, and 54-36 over Newt Gingrich, who throws a Hail Mary pass by sending his third wife out on the hustings.

It’s a long, long time between now and November, but the President’s coattails are beginning to look broad enough and strong enough to carry Democrats back into control of both houses of Congress.

That would be the equivalent of the New York Knicks, with their new superhero from nowhere, getting into the playoffs.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

American Past: Going, Going...

An encounter with an antiques appraiser brings an epiphany about what may be happening to us all now.

Downsizing life for very old age has brought not only inevitable scaling back of inner expectations but the physical world that can no longer be managed with effortless ease.

Parting piece by piece with what gave comfort over a lifetime is saddening, but there was anticipation of passing on and even profiting from their increased value with age, just as earlier generations had when I sought them out at auctions and from antique dealers—-handing forward the sensual satisfaction of being surrounded by a burnished past of hand-crafted desks, tables, cupboards, chests, linen presses of fine pine, cherry, tiger maple and oriental rugs, paintings and prints—-the reassurance of being part of something solid and lasting.

It came as a shock to find a sudden discontinuity in that process, although the precipitous drop in recent years in the market price of traditional American ideas, beliefs and values should have prepared me.

The patina of age has plummeted in worth even more than that of houses furnished with it. “Do you have any silver or gold?” my would-be auctioneer wanted to know.

Ironically, for all the Tea Party longing for the past, the attempt to wrench 21st century life back into that era has damaged the value of both.

Looking around now, how will future generations appraise a damaged Romney, a retooled Santorum, a refinished Gingrich?

Or will they all wind up on history’s pile of bargain ephemera?

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Corporations Are People, Nasty People

Barack Obama takes a step back on campaign finance.

“We will not play by two sets of rules,” say his managers, announcing a superPAC to offset Republican money to defeat the President, despite his denunciation of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision that unleashed tons of hard-to-identify funds for negative ads.

As Mitt (“Corporations are people”) Romney edges closer to the GOP nomination, an Obama official explains the reversal: “We’ve been watching...the Republican primary process, the most recent filing deadline and the Koch brothers conference and what’s been coming out of that: a half billion dollars to defeat the president.”

If corporations are indeed people, they are the most greedy, selfish and ruthless in the society. During years of sitting on boards of directors, I was always astonished by what happened to individuals (including myself) when they sat around a corporate table.

Institutional roles acted simultaneously as a narcotic that suppressed conscience and a stimulant to bring out every bit of low cunning to profit the organization. I have seen religious leaders, academics and business statesmen propose solutions to problems that would make a carnival pitchman blush.

If corporations bear any resemblance to individual human beings, they are people who have been lobotomized of all social instincts except their need to protect themselves, profit and grow.

In this context the Koch brothers, who have reportedly earmarked $100 million to defeat the President, respond with indignation at being singled out by his campaign

A spokesman for their lobbying firm says the billionaire brothers will not be "intimidated or silenced by the President's aides and his allies."

Now, with both sides committed to massive negative warfare, voters will have to fasten their seat belts. It’s going to be a bumpy year.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Rise of the Self-Righteous Right

Faced with the threat that a slowly improving economy may buoy the President’s reelection chances, Republican campaign strategy is tilting toward the Religious Right.

After winning a tiny sliver of voters in three states, Rick Santorum is in Texas talking to pastors: “There's not a management problem in Washington, all right. There's a more foundational problem there that goes to the basic concepts of who we are as a people. And those are deeply moral questions...

"I have seen the interaction with faith and public life and to me...there are not boundaries at all. I can't and I won't check my faith at the door because it motivates me to do things that I believe are best for our country.”

In 1960, a candidate named John Fitzgerald Kennedy told an assembly of ministers in Texas: “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute--where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote--where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference--and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the President who might appoint him or the people who might elect him...

"I believe in a President whose religious views are his own private affair, neither imposed by him upon the nation or imposed by the nation upon him as a condition to holding that office."

The GOP is moving toward demonizing Barack Obama, not only as the advance agent of European socialism but a devil’s disciple of the “secular left.”

Back in Washington, a Congress with 10 percent approval is hammering the President on a White House decision that health plans of faith-based organizations must cover contraception if they serve people of multiple religious backgrounds.

But the attacks may have dubious traction, as the Washington Post reports that “while Catholic leadership has blasted the new regulation, polls show that a majority of Catholics are actually more supportive of the provision than the rest of the country.

“A poll out Tuesday from the Public Religion Research Institute finds 52 percent of Catholic voters agreed with the statement, ‘employers should be required to provide their employees with health care plans that cover contraception and birth control at no cost.’ That’s pretty much in line with overall support for the provision, which hovers at 55 percent--likely because Catholics use contraceptives at rates similar to the rest of Americans.”

All this GOP movement backward will remind older Americans that it was less than two years ago that New York State, finally loosening the grip of the Catholic Church, became the last in the Union to allow no-fault divorce. Until then, couples had to commit perjury to get an “annulment” on the grounds that the husband refused to have children or some such other lie.

Now, Mitt Romney will have to fight off Santorum in the Republican drift back to theocracy and whoever wins, in the general election, the President will have to test how firmly most Americans still believe in the separation of church and state.

Update: Parodying himself, Santorum is now warning that Obama is becoming Madame Defarge: "They are taking faith and crushing it. Why? Why? When you marginalize faith in America, when you remove the pillar of God-given rights, then what’s left is the French Revolution. What’s left is the government that gives you right, what’s left are no unalienable rights, what’s left is a government that will tell you who you are, what you’ll do and when you’ll do it. What’s left in France became the guillotine."

Roll out the tumbrels.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

If Santorum's the Answer, What's the Question?

When you find yourself agreeing with Donald Trump, it’s time for a sanity check. Still, The Donald knows about beauty contests (pace Minnesota, Missouri and Colorado), so he may be qualified to comment on yesterday’s results:

“Rick Santorum was a sitting senator who in re-election lost by 19 points, to my knowledge the most in the history of this country for a sitting senator to lose by 19 points. It’s unheard of. Then he goes out and says oh ‘okay’ I just lost by the biggest margin in history and now I’m going to run for president.

“Tell me, how does that work? That’s like me saying I just failed a test. Now I’m going to apply for admission to the Wharton School of Finance. Okay? He just failed a test...And now he’s going to run for president. So, I don’t get Rick Santorum. I don’t get that whole thing.”

No matter how pointless the exercise, grownup Americans actually voted not only to put a one-dimensional religious zealot into the world’s most powerful institution but let him run it—-with his finger on the nuclear button, to nominate Supreme Court justices and devastate the whole nine yards of their lives.

To “get the whole thing” is to glimpse how clueless the American electorate is now and how the ubiquitous media is reporting it all with a straight face. (See Piers Morgan’s one-hour CNN infomercial with Santorum last month, in which he failed to ask substantive questions, and trotted out his photogenic family for a finale.)

While “journalists” continue to flog the horse-race, the election year keeps getting more and more bizarre.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Touchdown and Downton

Did our beloved Masterpiece Classic jump a small shark the other night?

Watching a new episode after seeing Eli Manning pull out a victory in the Super Bowl may have set a high dramatic standard, but what was all that hugger-mugger about a lost heir with makeup like Quasimdo showing up at the end of World War I?

Picky, picky maybe, but the Giants have their critics,too. As they prepare for their march through Manhattan’s Canyon of Heroes, a chorus of complaints arises about the failure to hold a similar parade for homecoming Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.

Even victory has its dark side. The best answer may be to watch the Giant homecoming with guilt and take another look at Downton Abbey online. Maybe we missed something.

Reagan and Obama Without Airbrushing

Reinventing yourself is a promise of the American Dream. Barack Obama, once a community organizer, is now in the Oval Office. Ronald Reagan, a movie actor, transformed himself into the same role.

But evolution stops short of fantasy and now, as the GOP demonizes our 44th President and deifies the 40th, come reminders of the limits.

Speaking near Reagan’s grave, Haley Barbour, a conservative, tells colleagues:

“In the 2012 campaign every candidate for the Republican nomination has invoked Reagan...But Reagan did not demand or expect everyone to agree with him on every issue. He wasn’t a purist...

“Some candidates are vying to be the most conservative candidate, and some voters are seeking purity in their choice...Well, in politics purity is a dead-dog loser. You need unity. And purity is the enemy of unity.”

Before taking office, Barack Obama worried publicly about trying to hold onto his authentic self, telling Tim Russert on “Meet the Press” with a worried smile that his wife and friends thought he was still there behind all the hype but admitting on 60 Minutes that the “attempt to airbrush your exhausting.”

In this campaign, airbrushing has escalated to fictionalizing as Newt Gingrich’s minions are caught trying to rewrite his Wikipedia entry to alter the self-professed historian’s own history, making 60 “adjustments” about his three marriages and the ethics charges against him while he was Speaker of the House.

Fact and fiction are getting so entwined that even Clint Eastwood’s Super Bowl ad is an issue, with an “offended” Karl Rove seeing it as “using our tax dollars to buy corporate advertising.”

The usually taciturn Eastwood explains: “It was meant to be a message about job growth and the spirit of America. I think all politicians will agree with it. I thought the spirit was OK. I am not supporting any politician at this time. Chrysler to their credit didn’t even have cars in the ad.

“Anything they gave me for it went for charity. If Obama or any other politician wants to run with the spirit of that ad, go for it."

And that’s that. Read his lips, and keep it real.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Hail to the Stiff?

As Mitt Romney takes another step to the nomination and gains momentum, the question of personal chemistry comes to the fore. Would Americans elect a president they viscerally dislike?

In a Slate piece titled “Romney is Kerry. Maybe Gore,” Jacob Weisberg argues:

“Romney strongly resembles two similarly unloved Democratic nominees from the recent past, Al Gore and John Kerry. Gore and Kerry both suffered from the same characterizations that get applied to Romney-—too wooden in person while too flexible in their views. Their supporters often argued that qualifications were what mattered. But ominously for Romney, both Gore and Kerry lost winnable races because of their flawed personalities.

“George W. Bush, on the other hand, got elected and re-elected, despite his enormous, substantive shortcomings, because ordinary people found it easy to relate to him at a personal level. They felt he wasn’t trying to be someone different from who he was.”

We are back to the “Would you want to have a beer with him?” argument, which in an era when TV debates keep flip-flopping frontrunners (remember Rick Perry until GOP voters realized he might dribble the brew on his manly chest?) is not as frivolous as it sounds.

The likability issue dates back three decades to Ronald Reagan, who beat Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale, both of whom projected higher IQs but couldn’t match the Gipper’s Hollywood-trained talent to appear folksy and accessible.

Even Bush I (with no “vision thing”) seemed more comfortable in his skin than Michael Dukakis but then ran into Bill Clinton who charmed the electorate into overlooking his bimbo eruptions on the way to the Oval Office and stained-dress impeachment.

After the South Carolina debacle, Mitt Romney took on an attack coach and developed pugnacity. Can he hire someone who will teach him to be likable?

Although he should have no fears about outcharming Gingrich, Santorum and Paul, Barack Obama and his killer smile are waiting in the wings.

Saturday, February 04, 2012

Playing Politics with Women's Bodies

An ugly uproar can turn positive if you go back far enough to remember when things were worse, much worse.

For a women’s magazine editor of that time, the Planned Parenthood-Komen Foundation furor recalls half a century from introduction of the Pill when women, no matter what their circumstances, were without safe, reliable birth control and, before Roe v. Wade, had the choice of bearing unwanted children or being butchered by back-alley abortions.

From the start, those new alternatives, sanctioned by both science and government, were fiercely opposed by those of strong religious beliefs, who were not above using scare tactics to discourage their use. Ever since, women’s bodies have been a political battleground

By 1965, with five million women on the Pill after five years on the market, there was no reliable research about side effects and possible long-term dangers. As editor of McCalls, I put up $15,000 to find out what members of the American Academy of Obstetricians and Gynecologists were seeing in their practices. They distributed a detailed questionnaire and analyzed the results.

Almost 7,000 gynecologists answered, and the overwhelming majority found oral contraceptives safe and effective. There were a few doubts that would become subjects of later study, but the clear result was to allay women’s fears about the Pill that were being spread by whispers.

In the early 1970s, Betty Ford was in the White House. Undergoing a mastectomy for breast cancer, she spoke about it in public and wrote an article for me to encourage women to go for early screening.

Back then, a generalized fear of the unknown bound both surgeons and patients into accepting radical breast removal as the only acceptable choice. But Dr. William Nolen, a surgeon who wrote a monthly column for the magazine, reported on the effectiveness of less drastic lumpectomies, combined with radiation and chemotherapy.

This was followed by the account of a writer who tracked down the surgeon pioneering the treatment: “I said 'No' to a group of doctors who told me, 'You must sign this paper, you don't have to know what it's all about'" Her article brought an overwhelming response, although it took decades to turn around the medical profession to where it is now, saving untold numbers of women from automatic loss of parts of their bodies.

This week’s flurry of outrage, which has resulted in a rapid reversal, will leave behind not only bruised feelings but a spike in awareness of the need for cancer screening, contributions to both organizations involved and a heightened sensitivity about keeping zealots out of potential life-and-death decisions.

For someone who has seen it all, that’s some progress, although it does not answer the underlying question of how people who claim to be pro-life can be so fierce in protecting fetuses, while giving their support to politicians who “don’t care about the poor” and rail against a “a food-stamp president” in stigmatizing the needs of those children after they are born.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

The Cross and Double-Cross

In Washington, the President affirms his humility at a National Prayer Breakfast to be followed by ego gone amok in Las Vegas as Donald Trump, after hinting for days he will endorse Gingrich, gets ready to bestow his grace on Romney.

Here is a contrast in current American culture between the place of the Cross and the Double-Cross as Barack Obama underscores “Jesus’s teaching that ‘for unto to whom much is given, much shall be required’” as Trump, to whom much was given at birth, grabs for more attention with his childish hide-and-seek media antics.

The President, delivering his political message “that I am my brother’s keeper, and I am my sister’s keeper,” goes out of his way to embrace the previous speaker’s criticism of those who bask in “phony religiosity” while failing to care for the poor or respecting those with whom they disagree.

Obama echoes a biographer of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, saying, “We can all benefit from turning to our creator, listening to him, avoiding phony religiosity...Our goal should not be to declare our policies as biblical. It is God who is infallible, not us.”

The pastor and theologian Bonhoeffer, who was killed by Hitler in the waning days of World War II, had criticized the German Church for conferring comfort on believers while turning a blind eye to the inhumanity of the Nazis.

“Cheap grace,” he had written, “is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance...absolution without personal confession.”

In Las Vegas, where everything is cheapened and grace is sought only at the gaming tables, the question of Donald Trump’s endorsement matters only to those who are not offended by seeing a super-hustler use the U.S. presidency to promote the upcoming new season of his TV show.

A contest in Nevada between casino owner Sheldon Adelson’s SuperPAC money for Gingrich and Atlantic City casino namesake Trump’s mouth is as far from a religious experience as you can get.

Unless you have a taste for political purgatory from now until November.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Mitt's Silver Hoof-in-Mouth Math

After spending all that money to win Florida big, the $21.7 million-a-year man takes a victory lap and disgorges a perfect line for attack ads on him in the future.

“I’m not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there,” he tells CNN. “If it needs repair, I’ll fix it. I’m not concerned about the very rich, they’re doing just fine. I’m concerned about the very heart of the America, the 90 percent, 95 percent of Americans who right now are struggling.”

Must be some kind of esoteric Bain math, where you add 95 and 1, leaving room for the U.S. Census latest estimate of 15.1 percent of Americans living in poverty.

Asked about the poor, Romney writes them off at the ballot box as Bain would a bad investment:

“The challenge right now--we will hear from the Democrat party the plight of the poor. And there’s no question it’s not good being poor and we have a safety net to help those that are very poor. . .we have a very ample safety net and we can talk about whether it needs to be strengthened or whether there are holes in it, but we have food stamps, we have Medicaid, we have housing vouchers, we have programs to help the poor.”

Obama’s people will be counting on Romney’s tin ear for income disparity to keep providing spontaneous proof that, despite all the pandering, he is more comfortable in a world of gated communities and tax avoidance.

In dirt-poor South Carolina, he kept saying “I’m concerned about the poor in this country,” but that didn’t go over too well even as he stuffed a wad of bills into the hand of a woman who told him she was broke.

For the rest of the year, Mitt Romney won’t be carrying cash, just promises of tax cuts for the Tea Party comfortable.

Update: A day later, Romney is still taking flak for being dismissive about "the safety net." The professional talkers just won't cut a rich guy any slack.