Monday, April 30, 2012

Osama on Our Minds

Osama bin Laden was so depressed about Al Qaida's low favorability ratings in the Arab world, we now learn, that he considered a name change for the franchise. No word as to whether he was mulling a Donald Trump invitation to host "The Apprentice: Boardroom Terrorism" or to be the subject of a Comedy Central Roast, which would have certified him as a has-been.

Death, a panel of political experts has voted, was a better career move.

Jimmy Carter has officially protested Mitt Romney's claim that he himself would have killed  Osama:  "Of course, even Jimmy Carter would have given that order." The 39th President insists that nothing about a Nobel Prize keeps one from a cold-blooded killing, although such activity is not as mandatory as it is for venture capitalists.

The list of world figures who would not have ordered the raid is now down to PeeWee Herman and the Dalai Lama.   

No word from George W. Bush about what he would have done.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

GOP Obama Bailout

Tongue in tanned cheek, John Boehner explains his escalating criticism of Barack Obama: "The president is getting … bad advice.  Somebody needed to help him out, so I thought I would."

Actually, Boehner has it backward.

For haters of government bailouts, Republicans in general are doing a nifty job of saving the President from his biggest mistakes in office.

In 2009, instead of going all out on job creation, Obama overrode advisers and went all in on health care . Worse than that, instead of asking for up-or-down votes on preferred provisions, he threw it all into a Congressional  pit to see a 2000-page bill emerge larded with a  sickening display of tradeoffs for their own constituents by Democratic lawmakers.  (The public saw,  too,  and thus was the Tea Party born to take over the House next year.)

The President's mistakes did not end there. Apparently insensitive to charges of care rationing and death panels, he continued to stress the altruism of covering millions of uninsured, apparently expecting Americans to respond with empathy rather than fear of less care for themselves.

So much miscalculation, so much political damage. When it was all over, health care reform was a partisan disaster for Democrats. Voters don't understand most of it, don't like what they do and have been sold a bill of goods that Obamacare is an expensive goverment takeover.  Even keeping children covered until 26 and barring disqualification for pre-existing conditions have been lost in the shuffle as Obama pluses.

But wait! What do we hear over the horizon, leading the cavalry charge to save the President?  Social Conservatives are riding to his rescue labeling unmarried women who want contraception coverage as sluts  and pulling the party to the right of the Vatican, leaving Mitt Romney with a huge gap in polls among young women voters.

This cycle it is the Catholic branch of the Right, led by St. Santorum, that is pushing for theocratic correctness in other people's lives, the kind of intrusion that would have made JFK puke.

That subtle blending started to recede after Kennedy's election, but until less than two years ago, the Church's  was still forcing New York State couples of all faiths  in failed marriages into dishonest warfare that encouraged them to lie and cheat, enrich divorce attorneys and, worst of all, damage their children in protracted court fights before becoming the last state  in the union to legalize no-fault grounds for dissolving a marriage in a relatively humane way. 

Boehner, who has signed on to the Religious Right's captivity of his party's candidate, is in 

"Now we are going to have a fight over women’s health,” he complains. “Give me a break. This is the latest plank in the so-called ‘war on women’ entirely created — entirely created — by my colleagues across the aisle for political gain. To accuse us of wanting to gut women’s health is absolutely not true."

Not as untrue as the claim that Obamacare is a government takeover, but for Obama, it will serve as a wedge with Republican and Independent women who would never otherwise consider voting for him.

We are in scorpion-and-turtle territory here. Asking to ride his back across a raging river, the scorpion reassures the turtle he would never sting him for that would drown them both. 

Halfway across, the scorpion stings.  "Why?" asks the turtle going under. "Because," answers the scorpion, "it's in my nature."

 For the Republican extreme Right, stinging is a reflex that might just drown Romney in November.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Mad Medical Care

From "Mad Men," we know a media target is a demographic group who wants and needs the same thing or can be conned into thinking they do. Now, a brief hospital stay conjures up a bizarre new target audience of the old, the maimed and the chronically ill that ad men have in their sights. 

The future is grim, if you can believe where advertisers are placing their bets on the bed-bound who watch TV screens all day. For these select viewers, the commercials are specially chosen. 

For the more fortunate, there are lovable codgers like former Presidential candidate Fred Thomson and Wilfred Brimley of "Cocoon" to warmly endorse cashing in the value of the home you own, without mentioning the ugly fact that in a number of years, you lose the home and will be looking for other sources to scrounge up money to pay for food. But you'll still have memories of that Vegas vacation paid for by the reverse mortgage to keep you warm. 

 You don't even need a home, if you watch an infomercial that tells you how to buy a foreclosed one cheap and fix it up for a fabulous profit. No details about the money, energy and skills you'll need to make a huge profit. 

But elderly dreams are not all financial. There are commercials featuring middle-aged women tightening their abs and flirting with silver-haired male models, interspersed with Viagra and Cialis ads.

Yet if you really want to risk a seizure for the old folks, turn to Mitt Romney's latest business advice to young people: 

 "We’ve always encouraged young people: Take a shot, go for it, take a risk, get the education, borrow money if you have to from your parents, start a business." Your son may not look like Don Draper or his aging doppelganger, Romney, but surely you can put your aging shoulder to the wheel for a couple more years.  

Update:  “The 401(k),”  a behavioral psychologist tells a New York Times columnist as he ponders retirement,  “is a failed experiment. It is time to rethink it.

“Their retirement plan is faith based. They have faith that it will somehow work out.”

If and when they watch hospital TV, they will see a different picture.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Romney's Next False-Self Phase

After morphing into a Tea Party zealot to win nomination, the GOP choice is in the kind of tricky transition described by JFK while running against Nixon in 1960: “It must be hard getting up every morning trying to decide who you’re going to be that day.” 

Nixon lost then but won eight years later by virtually erasing himself to edge out disorganized Democrats. Covering his campaign, Gloria Steinem wrote: “When Nixon is alone in a room, is anyone there?” 

This year, running against a well-organized and well-heeled White House machine won’t be that easy. To win moderates in his own party and Independents, Mitt Romney will have to persuade them he is more than a not-Obama. 

For the most robotic and least-loved Republican since Nixon, that challenge takes us into psychiatric territory first being explored back then—-the concept of the False Self. 

In 1960, D. W. Winnicott described authentic awareness of "all-out personal aliveness" or "feeling real" as a True Self. In contrast, the False Self was designed to hide behind a "polite and mannered attitude," concealing emotional deficits in those unable to feel spontaneous, alive or real to themselves in any part of their lives, yet managing to put on an outward "show of being real." 

Now, the False Self that GOP primary voters have been sensing in Mitt Romney will be put to a severe test. Can he persuade less ideological Americans that there is a real person behind that Wizard of Ooze screen? 

In contrast, during his run in 2008, Barack Obama was worried about losing his own authenticity, telling Tim Russert with a worried smile that his wife and friends thought he was still there behind all the hype and admitting on 60 Minutes that the “attempt to airbrush your exhausting.” 

By November, voters will have had a chance to decide who and what is real. Update: Romney vows, if elected, to build the Keystone pipeline to move oil deposits from Canada to the Texas coast that has been delayed by Obama. "I will build that pipeline if I have to do it myself," he tells Republican leaders in Arizona. Will that be by Bain Capital or from his personal funds?

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Generation Gone to Hell and Back

“This is not who we are,” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says after seeing pictures of U.S. soldiers defiling enemy bodies in Afghanistan.

True, but isn’t it what young Americans are in danger of becoming after a dirty, murky, endless war with nothing to show for it when they come home but coarsened sensitivity to human life and cases of post-traumatic stress disorder?

As headlines savor a few horny Secret Servicemen in South America, misbehavior by American troops keeps mounting in Afghanistan with little public reaction. The President insists those responsible will be “held accountable,” but no one in authority will go beyond the few-bad-apples explanation.

Last month, a Staff Sergeant was whisked out of the country after, apparently with no provocation, killing 16 civilians, including nine children and three women, in small villages in Kandahar. He will be tried in Kansas, not where the murders took place.

This follows pictures of U.S. Marines urinating on the bodies of dead Afghan fighters and a barn fire of Qurans by soldiers at an airbase, each incident followed by profuse American apologies that fail to quell the anger of local “allies.”

Isn’t it past time to admit the true price of pouring American blood and treasure into an enterprise guaranteed to end badly, even as we play Russian roulette with Iran and North Korea?

If there ever was an issue that should be soberly debated in an election campaign, surely this is it.

Any odds on whether it will be?

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

GOP's Overlooked Prize Fiction

Pulitzer judges should reconsider their decision. By declining to name an award-winning novel this year, they have overlooked the greatest creation of all, a huge work of collective fiction titled “Obama.”

In other categories, the Board expanded its vista beyond the printed page to Politico and the Huffington Post. Why not recognize an achievement that brings cave-dweller story-telling into the 21st century?

Reading fiction, argues a literary figure, is “a vital means of imagining a life other than our own, which in turn makes us more empathetic beings. Following complex story lines stretches our brains beyond the 140 characters of sound-bite thinking, and staying within the world of a novel gives us the ability to be quiet and alone, two skills that are disappearing faster than the polar icecaps.”

True enough, but dead-tree advocates fail to recognize the cumulative creative power of digital and electronic fantasies as those of the Republican debates and the Tea Party Congress to construct “social platforms” with both immediacy and lasting impact on millions who no longer read books but vote imaginings of “a life other than their own.”

Such achievements go as deep into the American soul as Richard Russo’s “Empire Falls” or Don DeLillo’s “Underworld” but are not limited to what can be contained between hard covers or appreciated only by people who don’t move their lips when they read.

Now, the national imagination is filled with such unforgettable figures as the monthly Mitt Romneys (the antithesis of “The Invisible Man” for our time), the Dickensian Rush Limbaugh and Mitch McConnell, along with scores of improbable but indelible characters.

Even a more compelling argument for awarding a prize to the GOP’s “Obama” is that it is an endless work, with such delights as learning that, even though Romney strapped canines to the top of station wagons, the current president ate dog meat as a child.

Can Art compete with that kind of Life?

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Good Old Days of the Secret Service

Amid a furor about misbehaving morons in Colombia, a citizen who once worked closely with the Secret Service is moved to share his fondness for those who protect Presidents and their families, including the time I was almost shot by them in a restaurant that serves drinks with tiny umbrellas on top.

In 1966, with her father in the White House, Lynda Bird Johnson came to work for me at McCalls, bringing with her agents who were only too happy to spend their time in an office populated mostly by young women.

One night I went to dinner at Trader Vic's in Manhattan with our company's chairman of the board. As we were being seated, the maitre d' whispered, "The President's daughter is going to be at the next table."

Lynda had told me that afternoon about having dinner with the son of a campaign contributor. As they went past, I called her name softly, and she stopped, apparently happy to see a familiar face. I got up and we hugged.

Later, on the way out, the head of her Secret Service detail rose from a stool at the bar where he and another agent had been sitting, screened by a beaded curtain. He was shaking his head.

"I was pretty sure it was you," he said, "but this other guy is new to the detail and he's never seen you. When someone got up and grabbed Lynda Bird, he was ready to react."

My dinner companion was thrilled. "You mean," he whispered, "we could have been plugged?"

The Secret Service man was still shaking his head. "When somebody makes a move, we don't have time for questions," he said.

During Lynda Bird’s tenure at the office, I had the same reaction as Dr. Benjamin Spock, the baby doctor who ran for president several years later, when he qualified for protection and was surrounded by three shifts of eight agents each.

“It was enjoyable to have lots of company,” he recalled. “They were a cheerful, witty group of men.”

The irony was that Dr. Spock had been unsuccessfully charged with treason by the LBJ Administration before he ran for the White House himself.

Now, as the new ugly uproar once again shows, presidential politics does make strange bedfellows.

My parting memory of those Secret Service men is their driving me to the airport after I visited the Johnsons in Texas. We were zipping along at over 90 mph, and I was enjoying the thrill of knowing that no one would give us a speeding ticket.

But that feeling of immunity has its dark side, too.

Update: Right on cue, a celebrity moron, rocker Ted Nugent, shows up to underscore what the Secret Service has to do in this era, investigate threats like his on an NRA video:

"If Barack Obama becomes the president in November again, I will either be dead or in jail by this time next year. If you can't go home and get everybody in your lives to clean house in this vile, evil America hated administration, I don't even know what you're made out of."

Forget the foreign sluts, fellas, and pay more attention to the domestic nuts.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Liberals in Love With Ike

Do two make a trend? Richard Cohen of the Washington Post now writes a warm-hearted memoir of a post-White House encounter with President Eisenhower, ending with “He knew precisely who he was. That’s more than can be said for the people who now want to depict him as the eternal innocent.”

It echoes my own experience back then and makes me wonder how many others like us later fell in love with a man they had voted against twice.

In the summer of 1964, I was one of a half dozen magazine editors invited to dinner in Gettysburg.

From the moment Mrs. Eisenhower opened the front door after the Secret Service vanished, we stepped into an earlier small-town world where a long-married couple referred to each other as "Ike" and "Mamie," urged us to do the same, talked lovingly about their grandchildren and said exactly what was on their minds.

"Ike has just gotten in from golf," Mrs. Eisenhower told us, "and I insisted he take a few minutes' rest." She led us to an enclosed porch facing a putting green, a large meadow and thick woods beyond, of a farmhouse she had bought in 1949 without Ike's having seen it.

After a few minutes Ike came down, freshly shaved in a dark blue suit complete with vest. Although it was June, air-conditioning chilled the house, a reaction, Mamie explained, to years in the tropics when she found the heat unbearable. Ike's skin had a pleasant pink cast and, when we shook hands, I could see why millions of voters had found those light blue eyes and that unforced smile irresistible.

We sat on the porch. For a while we talked about golf over drinks and a tray of potato chips and clam dip ("the only hors d'oeuvres you're going to get," said our hostess). Ike took them around and served everyone.

As we sipped in silence, the former President looked toward the deepening darkness over the richly green ground that had once been soaked with Union and Confederate blood, and said in an even tone, "About 4:30, I thought I was going out of my mind--I've never felt so close to insanity." He paused. "That's why I had to get out to the golf course."

After a moment of silence, I asked, "What made you feel that way?"

"During the day," he said heavily, "I've had dozens of phone calls and telegrams from people I respect telling me what I should do about this Goldwater thing, and each one sure he's expressing the will of God. I felt like Lincoln who used to wonder why the will of God is revealed to so many others and not to the person who needs to know it."

Weeks before the 1964 Republican convention, conservative Senator Barry Goldwater seemed certain to be nominated for President, and moderates in the party felt only Eisenhower could stop him to avert a Republican disaster in November.

Strangely, for a man who had commanded fighting forces most of his life, Eisenhower was unwilling to engage in political combat. "I'm not the titular head of the party," he said, referring with obvious distaste to Richard Nixon, without mentioning his name, as he did several times during the evening.

Then he cited Senator Joe McCarthy who, during Ike's Presidency, had been terrorizing the country with accusations of Communist sympathies against leading Americans, including Eisenhower's hero, General George Marshall. When advisors had urged him to speak out, Ike refused: "I'm not going to get into the gutter with that guy."

Now, on a porch wrapped in darkness, he was reassuring himself that his silence had denied McCarthy attention. "The fellow just wanted publicity." We were too polite to point out that McCarthy did not fall until confronted by men without Presidential power, Edward R. Murrow on TV and attorney Joseph Welch during the Army-McCarthy hearings.

Yet, as we talked, what emerged was that Eisenhower's distaste for hand-to-hand combat rested on deep conviction. ("Ike never argues," Mamie once said. "He just walks out of the room.") He told stories of bringing officials with opposing views into the Oval Office and persuading them to compromise. "The road in politics goes only one way," he said, "ahead--and the best place to travel is the middle, on the good surface. That's where you can bring the most people with you, not in the ruts and ditches on the extreme sides."

Ike had been sipping lemonade but, as we were handed our second drinks, he took a highball. "I allow myself only one, but I don't intend to waste any of it," draining the glass as we went into dinner. After crab meat and baked chicken, there were individual lemon meringue pies. "My favorite dessert," he said, "but I have to watch calories so we only have it on special occasions."

After the meal we went back to the porch, now dimly lit. The drink and dinner must have relaxed Ike. He went into a caustic commentary on the dishonesty of politicians, with emphasis on Goldwater:

"He came to tell me he was going to vote against the civil rights bill as a matter of conscience. I said I wouldn't ask any man to go against his conscience, but that if I were a Senator I'd vote for it. Even an imperfect bill would help balance eighty years of oppression. But what I couldn't understand was his attempt to keep the bill from coming to a vote. If I were to comment, I'd crucify him for that. But I was not going to say anything publicly."

Goldwater then told reporters that Ike "would not hold the vote against me." When Eisenhower complained about the misrepresentation, Goldwater assured him it would be corrected. We pointed out that it hadn't been, and Ike shrugged. The sequence just confirmed his low opinion of politicians and journalists.

As he told stories of being misquoted and misunderstood, something became clear about his cast of mind. Described by critics as intellectually limited and unwilling to commit himself, Eisenhower may simply have been a man who gave his full attention to one situation at a time, tried to do "the right thing" and was baffled when others looked below the surface or connected it with what had gone before or might come after.

He confirmed this impression describing the difficulty he was having with memoirs about his Presidency, as opposed to those about the war. His approach was chronological, rather than subjective and thematic. He seemed unwilling to look below the visible aspects of experience. (That this was a matter of disposition is suggested by his definition of an intellectual as "a man who takes more words than necessary to tell more than he knows.")

His passion for golf seemed a metaphor for his approach to politics and life. Unlike tennis, you don't react to an opponent. You focus on one stroke and then go on to the next. There is no ambiguity about the result--your score is a precise number. Even in competition, the social coziness of a foursome masks the desire to prevail over others, and jokes about slyness and cheating defuse competitiveness into laughter and camaraderie.

But despite this inflexible mindset, I felt myself drawn to Eisenhower's palpable decency and lack of pretension. I wondered what was below that controlled surface, particularly when we looked at his unframed oil paintings stacked in a corner. (He spent much of his retirement behind the easel, another solitary activity that required intense concentration on the next stroke.)

As we looked at the paintings, he kept pointing out his shortcomings ("Sometimes I work on one for years without getting it right"}. Most resembled picture-postcard illustrations, the equivalents of polite conversation. But there was an exception.

He had drawn it from memory, he said. It showed a solitary figure in a rowboat at sunset, a dark silhouette in the subdued gleam of a lake. Above was a truly extraordinary sky, bursting with fragments of vivid color--light and dark blues, reds, purples. He expressed pleasure at his own daring in painting that sky.

As we started to leave, Ike seemed reluctant to see us go. He had an early golf date in the morning but protested that he wasn't tired and dawdled while we made our way from the dark porch into the glare of the living room.

For a moment I found myself at his shoulder. He stood militarily erect, but a network of cross-hatched lines at the back of his neck testified to age. I felt a surge of sorrow and affection. Whatever reservations I might have had about him as a President, I was drawn to the man--I would have trusted him with everything I own.

As we sorted ourselves into the limousine that would take us back to Manhattan and drove off, Ike and Mamie stood in the driveway, waving us on our way.

Now, after Richard Cohen’s column, it makes me wonder: Are there any more members of an aged Jewish liberal cult who fell in love with Eisenhower late in his life? Membership applications will be cheerfully accepted.

Friday, April 13, 2012

O.J. Journalism Again

“What do you call a thousand attorneys at the bottom of the ocean?” “A good start.”

Dust off all the old lawyer jokes for their biggest extravaganza since the O.J. Simpson trial two decades ago. Legal talking heads are back in abundance (including Simpson prosecutor Marcia Clark, ever-present Alan Dershowitz as well as Fox’s Greta Van Susteren, who got her start gabbling about O.J.) along with a raft of sleazy-looking new ones from the Sunshine State.

CNN will have to clone their award-winning analyst Jeffrey Toobin, who goes straight from superb coverage of the Supreme Court health care mandate case to Trayvon trial minutae.

Viewer anguish to come is previewed by Jon Stewart with a take on Special Prosecutor Angela Corey’s announcement of a second-degree murder charge against George Zimmerman, after lecturing us on Florida jurisprudence and introducing almost every lawyer in the state.

We are back in more-than-we-need-to-know territory here and should petition cable companies for a wake-me-when-it’s-over switch.

“Why don’t sharks attack lawyers?” “Professional courtesy.”


Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Day FDR Died

Time passes and takes with it those who can bear witness, reality becomes history, but in the deep well of national memory, the past holds lessons for the future.

On this day 67 years ago, I was in uniform in a sleeping bag on a German farmhouse floor when someone shook me awake to whisper, “Roosevelt is dead.”

At 21, I was part of a generation that could remember no other president. FDR had been sworn into office on my ninth birthday.

That day will be recalled mostly in nursing homes by people who were kids in 1945 and remember a grief so universal it would be unimaginable today. New generations will be surprised to learn the nation was once so united in trusting—-and loving--a man in the White House.

History may find FDR flawed, but naive as Americans were back then, we did not expect perfection, only an honest attempt to save us from the Depression.

Bill Moyers recalls his father, an East Texas laborer, who voted for Roosevelt because “the President’s my best friend” and he “knew FDR was talking for him when he said life was no longer free, liberty no longer real, men could no longer follow the pursuit of happiness--against economic tyranny."

In his first Inaugural, Roosevelt railed against "the rules of a generation of self-seekers. They have no vision, and when there is no vision the people perish" and charted a return to "ancient truths. The measure of the restoration lies in the extent to which we apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit."

Such words may sound naïve in our wised-up era, but they held the country together, rebuilt an economy ravaged by greed and made us powerful enough to win a war that had to be fought to preserve our freedom—-literally, not in the selfish sense the word is used today by haters of government “intrusion” into their lives.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, for most Americans, is an historical figure, but those who lived in his time can testify that he left the U.S. prosperous and united for more than half a century to come until the descendants of those he called “self-seekers” took over again.

Now, another election is ahead to offer a choice between a leader standing with “patriotic millionaires” who want their taxes raised and a “vulture capitalist” bent on defending and expanding the economic tyranny Roosevelt fought.

He belongs to the ages now but, to keep FDR’s legacy alive, Barack Obama will have to fight that same battle all over again.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Santorums Exit Like "The Sopranos"

Five years ago, a family that had captured the American imagination suddenly disappeared from TV screens with no real explanation, just as the current national soap opera, “The Santorums” abruptly ended yesterday.

They sit around a table, nothing untoward happens...and then fade to black. We had been mesmerized on the weekend by their daughter’s hospital stay, we were looking forward to the gang war in Pennsylvania, and suddenly it’s over.

Did something happen behind the scenes? Did the GOP dons make Santorum an offer he couldn't refuse? What happens next?

When “The Sopranos” ended in 2007, the show’s creator David Chase offered no rational explanation but his admirers recalled his musings about what is seen on the tube:

"Network television is all talk. I think there should be visuals on a show, some sense of mystery to it, connections that don't add up. I think there should be dreams and music and dead air and stuff that goes nowhere. There should be, God forgive me, a little bit of poetry."

Of all people, Rick Santorum has now added a touch of poetry to the 2012 talk marathon, but it’s not likely to be a big seller on DVD, like “The Sopranos.”

Update: A day later, Santorum provides his own explanation:

“We had for the first time in the campaign had a debt. The debt was, from my perspective, a little more substantial than I was comfortable with...In the last week after Wisconsin, we basically raised almost no money. We had solicitations going out, and people were just e-mailing back saying the race was over and you’ve got to join the crew.”

Spoken like a true conservative.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

A Self-Questioning Mike Wallace

In the obituary roll of old clips, Mike Wallace, who has died at 93, is now seen in his familiar role as relentless prosecutor of the powerful.

Yet, it was not always so. In the early days of “60 Minutes,” I was with him at small gatherings, when he and other media people, then under relentless attack by the Vice President of the United States as "nattering nabobs of negativism" and "an effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals," were asking ourselves if there was any truth in those charges.

Of us all, it was the hard-charging Mike who was most willing to examine his own prejudices. Over dinner and drinks, we argued over whether Spiro Agnew had touched a nerve in mouthing Nixon White House epithets written by Pat Buchanan and Bill Safire calling us "pusillanimous pussyfooters" for opposing the Vietnam War.

Back then, it was only little more than a decade after Sen. Joe McCarthy had terrorized Washington and the media with little public questioning until Edward R. Murrow on CBS and others helped bring him down.

It would take years before Agnew was forced out of office for taking cash bribes when he was governor of Maryland and even longer for Nixon to self-destruct over Watergate.

Such self-questioning by Mike Wallace, even as he became famous for grilling and even ambushing interviewees, foreshadowed the suicidal depression he would suffer in the 1980s after a long, inconclusive trial of a $120 million libel suit by Gen. William C. Westmoreland, the former American commander in Vietnam, for asserting that the General had deliberately falsified his estimates of enemy strength.

Next Sunday, CBS will no doubt put into perspective the pluses and minuses of what Mike brought to TV journalism but, in the remembrances of his personal style, what should not be lost is how much he cared about getting the story right and how often he did just that, most notably in the celebrated whistle-blower story about tobacco companies.

For a long-time admirer, there is a special irony in the recent short-lived Newt Gingrich presidential skyrocket, which started with a highly applauded debate attack on Mike’s son, Chris, of Fox News for “gotcha questions” and “playing Mickey Mouse games" after a legitimate query about the disarray in Gingrich’s campaign.

In his prime, Chris’ father would have never let a politician have the last word about that.

Monday, April 09, 2012

Health Care That Can Make You Sick

If you’re in a waiting room where the TV set is always on Fox News, you may want to check your doctor bills.

In this era of politicized health care, a study by medical specialists finds “many profitable tests and procedures are performed unnecessarily and may harm patients. By some estimates, unnecessary treatment constitutes one-third of medical spending in the United States.”

Their list of overused lab work includes X-rays, brain imaging and bone scans that are not needed when they are ordered.

Future lists by other specialists are forthcoming, but all this is only the tip of the health care fraud-and-abuse iceberg.

Any reasonably alert patient in recent years has a personal list of providers who specialize more in billing than healing: dermatologists who nick off a small cyst and charge Medicare for surgery; podiatrists who inflate five minutes of nail-paring into hundreds of dollars; physical therapists who put clients on an exercise machine and walk away to file insurance claims.

Five years ago, the FBI estimated “phony bills” and “excessive treatments” to cost taxpayers more than $60 billion dollars a year and climbing and, now as Congress and the Court try to nullify Obamacare, who knows how much the tab for free-market cheating may be.

As a New York Times editorial notes: “Patients with comprehensive health insurance may not care much if needless tests are performed. But if health care costs continue to soar, patients will be shouldering more of the financial burden. And there can be serious health consequences from unnecessary treatment, including excess radiation, adverse drug effects, exposure to germs in medical institutions and even exploratory surgery or biopsies when scans produce a false positive.

"Eliminating needless care is not rationing. It is sound medicine and sound economics.”

Oddly enough, the best commentary on all this may come from megachurch pastor Rick Warren, who tells an interviewer that the main source of Americans’ current problems is “our inability to delay gratification. I want it and I want it now, and I’m going to buy it even if I can’t afford it.”

Health care is on that list.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

A Long Life with Racism

A British writer with an Asian wife scandalizes the Web with a “talk” to his children about American race, providing them with outlandish statistical reasons to fear and avoid black people.

Such casual racism and paranoia rightly provoke outrage left and right and, in this old white heart, rouse...what? Disgust, sorrow and painful memories.

I was born and spent my first years in America’s largest black ghetto, Harlem, in a store where my immigrant Jewish parents lived in back and sold women’s clothes to people as poor as they were. Skin color did not matter in our lives.

Later, I went to college in that neighborhood, walking ten blocks and back, at times after dark, from subway to campus, without ever being molested, a period interrupted by three years in uniform, ending in Europe, where men of pure white Aryan descent were trying to kill me every day.

Back home, I got my degree, took a job at the college and fell in love with a new graduate working in the same office--intelligent and beautiful, with a face of cinnamon skin and dark eyes that often regarded me above a faintly mocking smile. It finally seeped in that she was somehow interested in me. I asked her out.

“You’ll be the only white person there.” She invited me to a party, watching my eyes. “Fine,” I said.

The party was unremarkable. In the early 1950s, before the Supreme Court desegregation decision, before black anger and white guilt, it was a time of racial tact. Our hosts seemed at ease with me, I was comfortable with them.

We were a close couple until she went on a summer scholarship for graduate study in France. While she was away, I had to face myself. In a dead-end job, did I lack the strength and will for any commitment--in work or love, let alone to live in the world as part of an interracial couple and bring children into it?

When she came back, it was not the same. The heat between us was still there, but the warmth was gone. She talked glowingly about a man she had met in France. I felt I had failed a test, letting myself be only dimly aware it was taking place.

I went to work in Manhattan and became the editor of large magazines, publishing articles on race relations—-integration in the north and south, the first national profile of Martin Luther King, the murder of Andrew Goodman, the son of friends, trying to register black voters in Mississippi.

As head of the American Society of Magazine Editors, I started a program to hire black college graduates, only to discover that the young woman in charge was discouraging them from “selling out.” I fired her without worrying about racial discrimination.

Now, decades later, we are living in an era with an African-American president and where the racial issue has shifted from the killing of blacks by white men in hoods and robes to the death of a black teenager wearing a hoodie at the hands of a white vigilante.

Despite my history, I have little patience with political hustlers like Al Sharpton and Herman Cain, but find it painful to see racism now openly discussed as an issue of whites fearing for their lives at the hands of blacks, when throughout my life, it has always been the other way around.

The children on the receiving end of “the talk” about avoiding black people are being conditioned by a Big Lie to live constricted and hateful lives in physical safety but no human or historical understanding.

Friday, April 06, 2012

Romney, Hide-and-Seek Job Creator

Jumping on a weaker-than-expected jobs report, the Etch-a-Sketch candidate is telling crowds, “The reason I’m so animated about defeating Barack Obama is because he’s failed the American people.”

Yet, as he promises voters more wealth, Mitt Romney is still going to great lengths to hide his own.

In 48 accounts from Bain Capital, on financial disclosure forms the GOP candidate-to-be fails to “identify the underlying assets, including his holdings in a company that moved U.S. jobs to China and a California firm once owned by Bain that filed for bankruptcy years ago and laid off more than 1,000 workers.

“Those are known only because Bain publicly disclosed them in government filings and on the Internet. But most of the underlying assets--the specific investments of Bain funds--are not known because Romney is covered by a confidentiality agreement with the company.”

At the brink of the real Presidential campaign, it’s hard to tell if Romney spent his Wall Street time as the job creator he claims to be or as the Danny DeVito character, Larry the Liquidator, in the 1991 movie, “Other People’s Money:”

“The entrepreneur of post-industrial America, playing God with other people's money. The robber barons of old at least left something tangible in their wake--a coal mine, a railroad, banks. This man leaves nothing. He creates nothing. He builds nothing. He runs nothing. And in his wake lies nothing but a blizzard of paper to cover the pain.”

Romney’s physical resemblance to DeVito is minimal, but the vertically challenged actor was coupled with Arnold Schwarzenegger in “Twins.” It’s the inner man who counts.

In hiding the source of his wealth, Romney is not alone. Even as Newt Gingrich fades from the primary picture, his health-care think tank files for bankruptcy with estimated liabilities of $1 million to $10 million dollars to creditors.

Republicans from now to November will be promising to make voters rich. It’s just that they won’t be showing them how they themselves did it.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Hate Crime: Killing Martin Luther King Again

Today marks the murder of Martin Luther King in 1968, even as a racial uproar does violence to his memory.

The gulf between reactions to his death then, universal public grief, and that of Trayvon Martin tells much about how America has changed in those years.

Even when still alive, Dr. King’s preaching of peaceful protest was being challenged by angrier voices of Black Power and Black Panthers. Yet, in his 39 years on earth, he changed the face of America, culminating in a 1964 Civil Rights Act that outlawed segregation and began moving toward racial equality for decades without stirring hatred.

Politically, the country back then, in a bipartisan effort, was ending almost a century of Southern oppression under Democrats. Now, that former region of slavery has morphed into a solid bloc of Republican states united in bitter, personalized hatred of the first African-American president.

What would Martin Luther King, if still alive in his eighties, make of the racial, social and political battle being fought over the body of a dead teenager and the man who shot him? Would he see it, as it surely is, to be a proxy war on both sides over an African-American’s leadership during three years of hard times?

From the start in 1955, King renounced hate. Although harassed, arrested, with a bomb exploding on his front porch, he would not respond with violence. “If we are arrested every day,” he told followers in the Montgomery bus strike, “if we are exploited every day, if we are trampled over every day, don’t ever let anyone pull you so low as to hate him. We must use the weapon of love.”

Yet, there was nothing soft or passive about his civil disobedience in protests throughout the South, drawing support of whites as well as blacks. Like JFK, King understood the emerging importance of television, but he went beyond words and used the power of body rhetoric. He planned marches to elicit images of brutality against his people——guns, clubs, police dogs and high—pressure fire hoses——for the evening news.

When King gave his “I have a dream” speech to 250,000 peaceful demonstrators in Washington, Kennedy congratulated him in the White House that night. During the day, he was nowhere in sight. It remained for a Southerner, Lyndon Johnson, to push through civil rights laws and tell a joint session of Congress, “We shall overcome.”

Dr. King understood the power of public opinion but not for self-aggrandizement. He wrote a Christmas memoir for my magazine in 1966, but typically not about himself. He had rented an apartment in a Chicago ghetto to connect with black gang members: “I was shocked at the venom they poured out against the world. All their lives boys like this have known life as a madhouse of violence and degradation.”

He persuaded them to join him in a Freedom March through Mississippi, where they were “attacked by tear gas. They were to protect women and children with no other weapons but their own bodies. To them, it would be a strange and possibly nonsensical way to respond to violence. But they reacted splendidly. They learned in Mississippi and returned to teach in Chicago the beautiful lesson of acting against evil by renouncing force...They revitalized my own faith in nonviolence.”

Now, on the anniversary of his own violent death, the country is being torn apart again by racial rage on both sides of the divide he tried to heal. If that isn’t a hate crime, what is?

Monday, April 02, 2012

Why is Don Draper Depressed?

“Mad Men” makes news with a passing dig at Mitt Romney’s dad (calling the elder "a clown") but, for serious fans, the growing question is what’s happening to the show’s core character, the creative but mercurial, lusty but haunted, sexually greedy but sensitive Don Draper?

We could be in “Answered Prayers” territory here, Truman Capote’s never-finished novel of that era based on the wisdom of St. Teresa of Ávila: "Answered prayers cause more tears than those that remain unanswered."

Like Capote, the “Mad Men” character is a person damaged in youth but with the will and talent to reinvent himself in the mid-century Manhattan jungle. And like Capote after “In Cold Blood,” he becomes a sought-after lion of the time.

Yet, in the two-year hiatus of the show, most of the life has drained from Draper. Turning 40 with a new wife whose body obsesses him, he loses interest in work and its mano-a-mano gratifications, goes into a funk after she throws him a surprise party highlighted by her own sexy dance and, in the latest episode, turns almost catatonic when his first wife has a cancer scare.

Life may be imitating art here, as Jon Hamm who plays Draper is now one of the producers and directs the latest installment. In all the jockeying over the show’s future, have the real-life creators of “Mad Men” become as screwed-up as the denizens of Sterling Cooper?

Capote kept calling “Answered Prayers” his posthumous novel and telling friends, "Either I'm going to kill it, or it's going to kill me." When he published excerpts, his rich and powerful friends stopped embracing him and exchanging air kisses in their chosen restaurants. It was unfinished when he died, a broken man.

Make all the jokes you want about Mitt Romney’s dad, Mad Men, but stay rooted in the JFK-LBJ-Nixon era, and give Don Draper mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

April Surprise: "Sluts Vote"

A sign held up by a young woman during protests in the contraception kerfuffle last month and Rush Limbaugh’s reaction is reflected now in a new swing states poll showing the President roaring ahead of Mitt Romney, almost entirely on a surge of support by women under 50.

In February, fewer than half supported Obama. Now more than six in 10 do while Romney's number is down by 14 points, to 30 percent. The president leads 2-1 in this demographic and, in the poll overall, 51 to 42 only a month after trailing by two points.

Obama’s Limbaugh Bounce highlights what the GOP’s Great Waffler faces when he tries to pivot away from the Neanderthals he has been courting to win the nomination—-not only the self-proclaimed slut vote but those of Latinos, union members and other Americans who are not building a car elevator in their palatial new homes.

We will undoubtedly see a new model soon, pivoting from position to position at the speed of light, as explained in an April 1st scientific paper, “A Quantuum Theory of Mitt Romney” explaining that he “is but one of countless Mitt Romneys, each occupying his own cosmos, each supporting a different platform, each being compared to a different beloved children’s toy but all of them equally real, all of them equally valid and all of them running for president at the same time, in their own alternative Romnealities, somewhere in the vast Romniverse.”

The candidate’s own staff pulled an April Fool stunt on him today, but the nation’s voters may make it all come true when they catch up with all of those Romneys in November.

Update: The older woman demographic weighs in on Limbaugh’s “slut” attack as Hillary Clinton tells Andrea Mitchell she is heartened by response to his verbal assault from women cutting across all kinds of categories, the response from advertisers...

“We, as a nation, have every right--and in fact I welcome it--to engage in the kind of debate and dialogue that is at the root of who we are as Americans. But let’s not turn it into personal attacks and insults. We’re beyond that. We’re better than that and people in the public eye have a particular responsibility to avoid it.”

El Rushbo may be getting the point.