Thursday, May 31, 2012

Previewing President Romney's Regime

The Tea Party is right. What voters decide in November will change the face of America for years to come, as did the elections of Richard Nixon in 1968 and George W. Bush in 2000.

If Willard Mitt Romney takes the oath of office next January with Republican control over both houses of Congress, where do we go from there?

With no more Obama to “kick around,” in Nixon’s immortal words, how does a GOP that has spent years trying to dismantle government pivot to a position of actually running it? Where does Romney go after his Day One promise to wipe out Obamacare, and how do John Boehner and Mitch McConnell pivot to passing legislation instead of just gutting it?

As Obama and Romney now go head to head, the President’s campaign is working hard to make voters think about these questions, not only by the disputing the former venture capitalist’s claims about job creation but his record as governor of Massachusetts.

Beyond that, although it may only play a small part in voters’ decisions this November, there is foreign policy, the role of a president in shaping America’s role in the world.

Even pillars of the GOP establishment, most notably Henry Kissinger and Brent Scowcroft, are dragging their feet about endorsing Romney, citing views that are “too confrontational or too hawkish” and worries that his campaign statements “could hurt later diplomatic efforts and may signal a drift toward neoconservative passions.”

As the 2012 presidential race tightens, it will be crucial to expand the main issue beyond a referendum on Barack Obama’s four years, as the Tea Party would have it, but a realistic assessment of where Mitt Romney in the Oval Office and GOP control of Congress would take the nation.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Mrs. Obama's Battle of the Bulge

The First Lady is out plugging a new book “American Grown” to promote growing and eating vegetables, a personal bookend to her husband’s campaign to get voters on a healthier political diet.

As Mitt Romney comes under fire for dissing Planned Parenthood, Michelle Obama is on a campaign that also strikes close to home and, below the surface, has its own aspects of division by social, ethnic and economic class.

Obesity researchers long ago found that, beyond the question of cost, poor people tend to subsist on starchy diets—-beans and rice, pasta, potatoes—-for psychic reasons as well, the immediate rush of satisfaction that comes with them.

In recent years, fast food and sugared drinks have augmented those traditional ethnic sources, creating an overweight problem among the least privileged Americans.

As today’s Downtown Abbey crowd dines fastidiously on expensive meat, fish and baby vegetables, secure in its own sense of importance, millions are still filling their stomachs with nutritionally inferior stuff that is available cheap and fast.

The First Lady’s effort to bridge that gap is commendable, but older observers will recall a classic cartoon in the New Yorker of a mother saying “It’s broccoli, dear” and a bratty kid exclaiming “I still say it’s spinach and I say to hell with it.”

That was in 1928. Some things never change.  
Update: In New York, the city’s Mayor is taking steps to do what neither of the Obamas has the power to do, banning the sale of large sugary drinks in nearly all restaurants, movie theaters and street food carts. But Bloomberg is a billionaire and an Independent, and he isn’t running for president this year.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Obama's Macho Deficit

Mitt Romney has a 14-point Gallup lead among veterans in an otherwise close contest for the presidency, a demographic aberration more understandable to one of them after yesterday’s experience in a Memorial Day parade.

I was in one of those custom-made 1970s Pontiac convertibles, outfitted for Elvis and other rock stars with bull’s horns on the front bumper, rifles and handguns pasted everywhere inside and out, encrusted with silver dollars and bullets—-a NRA fever dream of a bygone America that had been fashioned by a Russian immigrant named Nudie Cohn, who started by tailoring outlandish suits and went on to outfit bizarre cars for American idols with no taste and too much money.

In that improbable vehicle, I was separated by a saddle from an old friend in uniform, a Democratic activist, but we must have both looked like the dinosaurs who are now furnishing Romney with his lead over Obama.

Sitting there brought back memories of Elvis and Nixon and their strange 1970 White House meeting at which they agreed that the Beatles and drugs had endangered America. Elvis gave Nixon a Colt .45, and he reciprocated with a Bureau of Narcotics badge.

Seven years later, Elvis was dead on a bathroom floor of a drug overdose, and Nixon had resigned in the face of impeachment for White House crimes.

In this election year, ideological strife is back in new forms and the challenge for Barack Obama will be to win back older white men who long for an imagined America with the reality that he has been and will continue to be a Commander-in-Chief who has kept the country safe from foreign threats and divert their support from a cardboard warrior who vaguely promises to confront Iran, North Korea and any other “Axis of Evil” straw men he can find.

When he loses his bid for the White House, Romney can always acquire one of those vintage convertibles for his new California home with the car elevator and dream of a different outcome.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

A Memorial Day Memory

In early 1945, I arrived at the 317th Infantry Regiment, 80th Division, part of General George S. Patton's Third Army. "Welcome," said a corporal, invoking the nickname of our commander, "to the world of 'Old Blood and Guts.' Our blood, his guts."

A lieutenant looked at my papers. "This guy can type," he said to a sergeant. "Put him on the SIWs."

So began a weird two weeks. There was only one typewriter, which the sergeant used all day. My job was to man it all night typing officers' notes about enlisted men suspected of Self-Inflicted Wounds.
Fighting in a war is like anything else that matters--ninety percent of it is just showing up. But for a few, it became unbearable. They shot themselves in the arm or leg, slashed a thigh, dislocated a shoulder or wrenched a knee in some improbable fall.  

Night after night, under a Coleman lantern hissing yellow light, I typed their stories in quadruplicate. In deserted barns and bombed-out buildings, I copied officers' notes about soldiers who had maimed themselves out of fear and fatigue, offering up some body part to save the rest. More than once, I was relieved when the investigator gave a soldier the benefit of doubt, refusing to add a court martial to the pain and shame to which he had already sentenced himself.

During a few hours of fitful sleep each morning in a command post corner or the back of a bouncing truck, my dreams were roiled by images of bleeding flesh and half-heard rumble of guns.

Late one afternoon, I came to reclaim the typewriter, and the sergeant, an apple-cheeked farm boy named Duffy who had had little to say to me, started complaining about my lack of nocturnal tidiness. Somewhere in his mutterings were the words "dirty Jew."

Before either of us knew what was happening, I had him by the shirtfront, bent back over a desk, his eyes wide with fear. I was pounding him in blind rage.
There was a witness, Captain James Woodside, who had just arrived to take command of a rifle company. A leathery-faced man with a thick red mustache, he stepped in to loosen my grip and watched as Duffy gathered himself, vowing to get me sent to the front line.
Capt. Woodside took my elbow and edged me into a corner. "If they send you down," he said, "I'd like to have you with me."

Until then, all I knew about him were latrine rumors that he was a West Pointer, a paratroop colonel who had refused an order that would have needlessly endangered his men, been busted to captain and now sent to do penance with Patton.

I never saw him again but, after V-E Day, when I talked to soldiers for a regimental history, he had become a legend. "The man was crazy brave," one of his sergeants said. He led charges against machine-gun positions, ran at snipers and, on one occasion, chased a German tank up a road with a bazooka on his shoulder.  

I knew him only as a man with sad, hard eyes whose few words gave me what amounted to a blessing--permission to fight back when attacked with the full fury of my rage. 

They sent me to a rifle company the next day, not Capt. Woodside's but right up front. Looking back, I could see that my 21st birthday had come and gone without my noticing it.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Oval Office Head to Head

Campaign watchers get a double-header of metaphors with reports that Barack Obama is eschewing a Rose Garden strategy and going head to head with Mitt Romney by name, along with a reminder of the President’s fondness for a three-year-old photo showing an African-American boy touching his hair in the Oval Office to compare it to his own.

As they were no doubt intended to be by White House aides, symbolism lovers may be wrenched by the distance between that early image of the breakthrough significance of Obama’s election and the bitter racially tinged battle for reelection now.

Yet the subtext is clearly there as the President and his supporters try to get their footing in these early days of the campaign, and the unspoken question is how far white-bread appeal will take Romney with voters who never accepted the idea of a black president and have compounded their racism by blaming him for the ills of the economy ever since.

The coming months will see a complex tangle of demographic struggles, as evidenced by early signs that Obama’s aggressive foreign policy has won him unlikely support among veterans and the military.

Some voters will believe anything in an election year, as we are reminded by a new photograph of Bill Clinton with his arms around porn stars in Monaco. Two decades ago, he got into the Oval Office by persuading Americans he could “feel your pain,” and the former President has apparently never stopped.

Now he is stumping and fund-raising for Obama ("Bill and I have plenty to talk about these days," he says in an e-mail),  but some things never change.  

Thursday, May 24, 2012

A Lethal Epithet for Romney

Presidential campaigns need a pithy phrase to nail the opposition, and the President is edging toward a killer label for Mitt Romney.

In 1940, FDR won reelection against a likable corporate lawyer, Wendell Willkie, who was dubbed the Barefoot Boy from Wall Street and easily defeated.

Four years later, Thomas E. Dewey, a buttoned-down former prosecutor with a campaign strategy of not being "prematurely specific" on issues, was described as an opportunist who "changes his views from hour to hour.” Pictured by his own aide as "cold as a February iceberg," Dewey was dispatched as the Little Man on the Wedding Cake.

Now, Obama is running for reelection against a changeable Wall Street insider with current views that make Willkie and Dewey look like flaming radicals, one who claims that his experience as a venture capitalist qualifies him to be President.

Democrats have floated Vulture Capitalist and Vampire Capitalist, but the labels have not stuck. Now Obama is working on another, Clueless Capitalist.

On the stump, the President tells of Romney’s answer to a question about financial struggles, “right out of an economic textbook.  He said, ‘Our productivity equals our income.’  And the notion was that somehow the reason people can’t pay their bills is because they’re not working hard enough. 

“If they got more productive, suddenly their incomes would go up.  Well, those of us who’ve spent time in the real world (laughter) know that the problem isn’t that the American people aren’t productive enough. You’ve been working harder than ever.  The challenge...we’ve faced for over a decade is that harder work has not led to higher incomes, and bigger profits at the top haven’t led to better jobs.”

This argument is at the heart of Obama’s case against the GOP candidate who has nothing to offer but experience in making companies profitable for investors rather than the people who work in them.

After all the epithets that have been thrown at the President, this campaign is waiting for the right one to put Mitt Romney into history’s dustbin along with Willkie and Dewey.


Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Romney's Biggest Bain Turnaround

Are Democrats swiftboating themselves?  Why are Obama supporters so defensive about challenging Mitt Romney’s main claim to the presidency?

It started three days ago with a “Meet the Press” gaffe(?), quickly recanted, by Obama supporter Newark Mayor Corey Booker labeling the attacks(?) as “nauseating.”  

The question marks are for skepticism about Booker’s motives. Those who remember Bill Clinton’s “Sister Souljah moment” in 1992, as the Mayor surely must, can testify to the selfish value of distancing oneself from ideological “extremism” on your own side.

But when and how did Romney’s Bain Capital claims become sacrosanct? How did what the President says “this campaign is all about” become so toxic to him?

His immediate answer to the Booker uproar was: “If your main argument for how to grow the economy is, ‘I knew how to make a lot of money for investors,’ then you are missing what this job is about.

“It doesn’t mean you weren’t good at private equity. But that’s not what my job is as president. My job is to take into account everybody, not just some...Their priority is to maximize profits, and that’s not always going to be good for businesses or communities or workers.”

Joe Biden followed up about Bain in his usual unvarnished way, observing that “companies go under, everybody loses their job, the community is devastated but they make money.”

Such reasonable responses to Romney’s self-puffery have now morphed into attacks on Capitalism, Motherhood and Apple Pie, putting gun-shy Democrats on the defensive. Their reaction suggests a deeper anxiety.

That’s the most troubling aspect of all this, the sense that it’s more anti-Obama than pro-Romney, as the President struggles in primaries to hold his own against “Uncommitted.”

That could be Mitt Romney’s middle name.
Meanwhile, the President’s Press Secretary is suggesting that Barack Obama is more conservative than Herbert Hoover, citing “significant fiscal restraint” and a “balanced approach” to spending. Can voters bear months more of topsy-turvy talk?

Monday, May 21, 2012

Boehner's One-Trick Pony Act

The Speaker is back, trying to reprise his Greatest Hit—-last year’s manufactured debt-ceiling crisis that lowered the nation’s credit rating after nearly sending government over a cliff.

Like Newt Gingrich in the 1990s, Boehner is ready, willing but fortunately unable to bring America to a standstill again this year to prevent reelection of a Democratic president, but he is eager to make the threat an issue in November.

What Boehner has in common with his predecessor, absent the glibness, is no guilt about gridlocking Congress for partisan purposes. With a  Tea Party class of 2010 breathing down his neck, the Speaker wants to play a shell game for voters now by getting them to follow the debt-ceiling pea rather than concentrating their attention on the urgent need to push the economy into higher gear and create jobs faster.

In the long run, the massive debt accumulated by two expensive wars and a bipartisan failure to slow it will have to be faced and resolved. But around the proverbial coffee table, it is not what Americans are worrying over this year.

Republicans, the prevailing wisdom says, “believe they win when talking about debt and borrowing, reinforcing their narrative that Democrats have irresponsibly maxed out the nation’s credit card...Boehner’s biggest asset in the upcoming negotiations is the need to raise the debt limit. And he must get it on the table because the game has changed since 2011.”

In the rush to do so, he may want to remember how Gingrich’s “Contract with (on?) America” ended. Bill Clinton was reelected; Newt was censured and fined by House colleagues and lost his job.

A one-trick pony can’t keep crowds enthralled forever.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Facebook Future: Clues from the Past

Media ghosts hover over Facebook’s I.P.O. with a valuation of $105 billion, raising old questions about how to turn the attention of millions into profit from advertisers.

The answers have never been clear, but for someone who spent decades in that search, the past suggests a rocky road to future profits for new bridegroom Mark Zuckerberg's enterprise.

In 1997, when stock of the Internet’s first phenomenon was soaring, in a New York Times OpEd piece, “AOL’s Bottom Line,”  I questioned how a dial-up service was eating up traditional journalism, eventually swallowing a chunk of it in what has been called the worst merger in media history.

I compared AOL then to mass magazines of my era which kept accruing ever higher circulations at cut rates while consumers needed them less and less in the hope that advertisers would provide revenue to save them.

The magazines died but AOL was bailed out, ironically, by a merger with Time Inc., the healthiest dead-tree dinosaur, which worked out so miserably that AOL had to be spun off before it sank the remains of Henry Luce's empire.

That history does not bode well for Facebook, in the light of almost a century’s media experience with the American information industry, the only big business in which customers don’t pay for the product. What has value is a byproduct, their attention, which is then resold to advertisers.

An ominous sign is the recent withdrawal of General Motors ads from Facebook, with observers noting the need to “convert that fan engagement into a business outcome for marketers.”

While users avidly share their vacation slides and other passing interests, how does a social network divert enough of their attention to pass it on profitably to people who want to sell them things?

No one has solved that problem on a large scale before. If Facebook can, it will turn out to be more than a lumbering giant like those of old. Until it does and/or uses its inflated stock to acquire entities that actually make money, it looks more like a highly overpriced stock market dream.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Political Love Stories

Barney Frank is getting married and Al Gore is going steady as Mitt Romney exchanges air kisses with George W. Bush behind closed doors. With the coming of Spring, not-so-young men’s fancies turn lightly to what passes for love in the body politic.

Frank, the retiring Congressman whose name is on Dodd-Frank, the President’s financial regulation law, nonetheless won’t be inviting Barack and Michelle Obama to his gay nuptials in July:

“We’re having this in the city I live in, in Newton, Massachusetts, on a Saturday afternoon. I don’t want to be accused of having shut down the entire region for a five-mile radius on a holiday would ruin the party to have the Secret Service.”

On the left coast, the former Veep is surfacing with a new girlfriend, the first since his divorce from Tipper. Not surprisingly, she is “a well-heeled Democratic donor from Southern California in her 50s with a background in science and a devotion to environmental causes.” Birds of a feather?

GOP news is less romantic as George W. Bush admits to a closing elevator door “I’m for Romney,” followed by a furtive phone call from the candidate, but the next day on the stump, Romney doesn’t mention the former president’s name, even as he refers repeatedly to President Obama’s “predecessor.”

Republicans are so buttoned-up. They just refuse to wear their hearts on a sleeve.

Friday, May 18, 2012

SuperPAC Man in a Say-Anything Society

Faced with an unlikely quotation of his from the past, Norman Mailer denied it saying, “I couldn’t have said that, it’s not within the range of my character.”

That would be a quaint response in today’s political world where SuperPAC blowhards with barrels of money are unleashed by Citizens United to say anything they want without taking responsibility for it.

Meet Joe Ricketts, the latest candidate for that old Monty Python title of rich twit of the year. An “up-by-the bootstraps billionaire” who decided to become “a player in the 2012 election,” Ricketts has set a new speed record for public stupidity by agreeing to and then backing off a $10 million ad campaign “linking President Obama to the incendiary race-infused statements of his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr.,” which immediately drew “waves of denunciation from Mitt Romney, the Obama campaign and much of the rest of the political world.”

Since the Supreme Court decided corporations are people, the parameters of America as a say-anything society have expanded to encompass some odd specimens. Describing Ricketts, an anonymous business associate says, “Half the time he’s a Libertarian and half the time he’s Rush Limbaugh.”

Ricketts’ public embarrassment was only accidental, following a leak of the Jeremiah Wright proposal, but how many more are in his pipeline and those of other anonymous would-be 2012 players?

Norman Mailer was famously the author of “Advertisements for Myself.” What would he make of this new crop of self-seekers bankrolling “Advertisements Against Obama” but refusing to take personal responsibility for them?

At least in his own first commercial, Mitt Romney lays out what he would do in office under his own name. 

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Closing the Book on John Edwards

His rise and fall tell more about politics and politicians in the 21st century—-and the rest of us--than they do about one imperfect man. John Edwards’ saga suggests where America is heading in an age of knowing everything and understanding practically nothing about people brought into our lives by 24/7 media.

Covering Edwards’ trial now is like “leafing through a catalogue of the sad and the sordid,” says a New Yorker writer, concluding that it “raises questions about campaign finance, the business of image-making, the pivotal role of a single large donor, and how much we really care about a candidate’s character.”

Yet, how much can we know when that “character” is largely a charade he constructs to hide even from himself?

In 2007, I wrote in defense of media probing the lives of candidates: “John Edwards and Mitt Romney are grown men who made a lot of money and now want the most powerful job in the world. All this attention goes with the process of trying to get it.”

Romney has no sexual skeletons but his parade of false selves is as daunting as those of Edwards, for whom millions voted as Vice President in 2004 and supported for the Democratic nomination four years later, only to learn that they knew nothing of his true self at all. (Venture capitalists and negligence lawyers don’t share their inner lives or even examine them much.)

Now, there would not be much point in throwing the book at John Edwards before we close it, but let voters who swooned over the likes of Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry and Herman Cain before settling for Mitt Romney ask themselves how much they really know about their choice.

Time is running out.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Best President Money and Media Can Buy

Six months from now, the most highly educated Americans in history will have chosen someone to lead them through hard times. In my lifetime, that process has advanced from control by political bosses in smoke-filled rooms to one dominated by media and money across the spectrum.

Tammany Hall is gone, but now thanks to Citizens United, we are in the hands of the Koch brothers and George Clooney’s Hollywood friends. If that doesn’t make us feel warm and safe, it shouldn’t.

“Freedom of the press,” A. J. Libeling wrote back then, “is limited to those own one.” Now cable and the Internet have made publishers of us all, misinformation is spread more democratically by Rupert Murdoch and rabid bloggers, but do voters understand more than they did then?

To ensure they don’t, Democrats and Republicans will swamp them in a tide of money. The President’s campaign will try to match GOP Super PACs with a “Super-O-Rama” to offset Karl Rove’s Crossroads and the Kochs’ Americans for Prosperity.

The TV commercials to be spewed out by such deformed spawn of the First Amendment will do nothing to further rational debate of issues, only becloud them with appeals to a national id of prejudice, political elitism and class hatred.

In contrast, the sound-bite circus of Obama-Romney debates will seem like Lincoln-Douglas. Yet they will only underscore the ugly atmosphere in which a President is being chosen, as “journalists” do little to clarify underlying issues and ramp up the bear-baiting, point-scoring involved.

There is, as any sane observer knows, an overriding clash of visions for America’s future at the heart of this election year, but its people may have a choice only of tendentious appeals to the worst in them.

The smoke-filled back rooms of the political bosses gave us a mixed bag of choices from FDR to Harry Truman. Is the enlightened era of their money-and-media counterparts doing any better?

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

"Bad Political Idea" Bombs Out

News flash: “Americans Elect, the deep-pocketed nonprofit group that set out to nominate a centrist third-party presidential ticket, admitted early Tuesday that its ballyhooed online nominating process had failed.

“The group had qualified for the general election ballot in 27 states, and had generated concern among Democrats and Republicans alike that it could wreak havoc on a close election between President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.”

Buzz Feed now seizes on “7 Very Bad Predictions About Americans Elect,” by such big-name pundits as Thomas Friedman, John Heilemann and John Avlon, all of whom enthused about bringing a new kind of digital democracy to American political gridlock.

One small-name pundit thought differently. From this blog (November 26, 2011):

“If you enjoyed how Ralph Nader put George W. Bush into the White House in 2000, you may love what a group called Americans Elect is trying to do in 2012.

“The well-financed effort wants a ‘wide-scale draft movement for presidential candidates,’ but it looks more like hammering a ‘broken’ political system and smashing it to smithereens.

“Americans Elect aims, not to create a new party, but hold a ‘convention on the Internet,’ to take the choice away from primary voters and turn it over to the wisdom of those who select ‘American Idol.’”

No need for a victory lap over what I called the “Really Bad Idea of the Political Year.” Read it here and weep over wasted millions by well-intentioned people.
Update: Conservative columnist Ross Douthat quotes historian Richard Hofstadter half a century ago. “Third parties are like bees. Once they have stung, they die,’” noting that “populism has flowered over the last two years, but it’s mostly appeared on the right and left-wing fringes of the two parties rather than in the space between them.”

That’s not where most Americans want to go.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Obama in "The Truman Show"

It’s all a reality show now as the “First Gay President” invites himself to make a graduation speech in the neighborhood where he came of age half a lifetime ago.

“This recession has been more brutal, the job losses steeper, politics seems nastier, Congress is more gridlocked than ever, some folks in the financial sector have been less than model citizens,” Barack Obama tells the class of ’12 at Barnard College.

The words sound realistic, but are we all in the 1998 movie, “The Truman Show,” in which Jim Carrey does not realize his life is not authentic but a 24/7 TV series managed and manipulated by others behind the scenes?

 “We've become bored,” says the Godlike Producer, “with watching actors give us phony emotions. We are tired of pyrotechnics and special effects. While the world he inhabits is, in some respects, counterfeit, there's nothing fake about Truman himself. No scripts, no cue cards. It isn't always Shakespeare, but it's genuine.”

Genuine, but under the control of forces with ulterior motives.

How much of today’s media world is “real” or just a production of the Obama and Romney campaigns with the contrivance of fake journalism machinery? Are we all watching a giant collaboration to persuade us this stuff is really happening?

Topic A now is gay marriage, which arose from Joe Biden’s Meet the Press “slip,” escalated into the President’s endorsement and ends now (perhaps) with Andrew Sullivan’s ode to Obama.  

Topic B, Wall Street arrogance, is working its way through the machinery, and our belief that it’s happening is a product of the process. After Obama and Romney have done their media dance, will anything have changed?

“The Truman Show” was a movie to challenge perceptions of what we all call reality. So far, “The Obama Show” is proving worthy of it and promises to take us into new territory as Mitt Romney courts the Religious Right with all the pre-tested protestations.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Media Feeding Frenzy

What would the founding father of Time have made of the magazine’s breast-feeding Mother’s Day cover?

The model for it, a 26-year-old woman, reacts to the uproar about the photo with her three-year-old son to observe that breast-feeding advocates “are actually upset” because it doesn’t “show the nurturing side to attachment parenting. This isn’t how we breastfeed at home.

“It’s more of a cradling, nurturing situation. And I understand what they’re saying, but I do understand why Time chose this picture because it...did create such a media craze.”

In 1923, Henry Luce started the magazine to save readers from being confused by “the million little chaoses of raw news” and give them a Voice from Above to explain what it all means. Now, in the Drudge age, journalism has gone downhill from fake omniscience to injecting a 24/7 stream of "news" on steroids into the public bloodstream.

Like Drudge, Luce pursued his own political agenda but had to recognize some bounds in pushing it.

“Isn’t good editing,” he once asked me, “figuring out what’s going to happen and then advocating it before it does?” I wish I could report that there was a mischievous gleam in Luce’s eye when he said it, but there wasn’t.

Being a practical man, Luce knew that getting attention is the media’s first requisite. The most compelling evidence is his answer to the question of why, despite his conservative political beliefs, he hired so many Democrats for his magazines’ staff.

“Because,” he replied, “those Republican bastards can’t write.”

For the most part, the man who named the American Century wouldn’t be shocked at seeing his magazine in this one embrace liberal writers, bare breasts and who-knows-what-else to stay alive in the competition.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Splat! Moby Dick Lays an Egg

No modesty for those who occupy Wall Street seats of power as JP Morgan’s “London Whale” harpoons himself with a $2 billion loss, while his bosses (and the SEC) try to figure out when a hedge becomes a bet.

We are back in the land of “They Must Know What They’re Doing or They Wouldn’t Be Where They Are,” annals of the clueless steering the mammoth (the captain of the “Titanic,” LBJ running the Vietnam war, W in Iraq) with Morgan CEO admitting the firm was “stupid” over “huge moves in the marketplace” that made its “positions more complex...and badly monitored.”

Well said, but only a month ago, Jamie Dimon was complaining about the Volcker rule, which limits banks' ability to make risky trades, and with rules that govern derivatives in the new Dodd-Frank regulations, which have not gone into effect yet.

“The enormous loss JPMorgan announced today is just the latest evidence that what banks call ‘hedges’ are often risky bets that so-called ‘too big to fail’ banks have no business making,” says Democratic Sen. Carl Levin, who co-wrote the language in the bill. “Today’s announcement is a stark reminder of the need for regulators to establish tough, effective standards.”

The Wall Street banks are still making deals so complex that they themselves don’t understand them, to say nothing of the rest of us, but still resist any fencing in of their gambles.

Meanwhile, JP Morgan’s Whale turns out to be no Moby Dick, just a clueless tub of sea lard floundering in the financial waves.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Moral Obesity in America

Americans are too fat, experts say. The debate on gay marriage suggests we may be growing fat-headed as well.

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics predict 42 percent of the population will be obese by 2030, with 11 percent severely obese, at health care costs of $550 billion.

How do we set the price of moral obesity, as reflected in the uproar over the President’s conversion into a supporter of gay marriage?

Just as we have been stuffing our bodies with too much poor nourishment and exercising them too little, are we doing the same with our minds and hearts?

In this election year, opinions are as ubiquitous as fast food and most are just as nourishing. Political debate swerves from contraception to the sanctity of marriage in an eyeblink, although neither subject is on the legislative agenda after a meaningless North Carolina vote Tuesday.

Yet, a New York Times editorial asserts that the President “took the moral high ground on what may be the great civil rights struggle of our time” while other pundits calculate both the timing and political impact of his coming out on the issue.

Where is all this litmus-testing on issues great and small taking America? What was wrong with the President's previous “Yes, but” position on gay marriage? What’s next on the agenda for splitting us into “for” and “against” factions?

Human beings have doubts, ambivalence, uncertainties, zigzags, and, yes, prejudices on many questions. That’s what makes them human.

In his “evolving” on gay marriage, Barack Obama was being human but, in today’s political climate, that apparently is not enough. Someone who shares his previous position and is not ready to embrace his new one finds such an all-or-nothing imperative saddening.

I would vote for him in November against robotic Mitt Romney for many reasons, but it would be heartening to see the President less susceptible to being pushed into the political twilight zone in which his adversary lives.

In the long run, moral obesity is as big a threat to the body politic as diabetes is to individual Americans. A diet of more straight talk and less calculation is indicated.