Thursday, June 28, 2012

Supreme Court's Get-Well Card

To the body politic in a near-coma, Justices send a message that will take days to decipher and deconstruct, but the Hallmark version is a 5-4 get-well card for the health care law, surprisingly signed by John Roberts, who in six years has never before joined his liberal colleagues on a major issue.

“The Court does not express any opinion on the wisdom of the Affordable Care Act,” the Chief Justice writes, noting that the individual mandate “need not be read to do more than impose a tax...Because the Constitution permits such a tax, it is not our role to forbid it, or to pass upon its wisdom or fairness.”

Is this “the vote that saved Obama?” Perhaps, but more to the point, is it the vote to keep America from sailing off a partisan cliff with the Supreme Court in the driver’s seat?
Roberts, with a long tenure ahead of him, has swerved to avert that disaster, reaffirming a now-forgotten political axiom--that only those with strong credentials have the freedom to make such switches.

In the 1970s Nixon went to China, a move that would have set off national howling, if made by any Democrat or even liberal Republican in the White House. Until Watergate derailed him, Nixon was on track to upgrade his legacy.

No one should believe that, from here on, John Roberts will change his ideological stripes but, for the politically beleaguered, it can be enough that he has, for whatever reasons, kept health care reform from being a dagger to the heart of Obama’s reelection chances and put the issue back into the political arena, where it belongs.

Now Mitt Romney will have to persuade voters that he is their only hope for salvation to scuttle the kind of health care reforms that he himself championed as a governor.

Update: The Chief Justice is seen as “a political genius” in having it both ways:

“By voting with the liberals to uphold the Affordable Care Act, Roberts has put himself above partisan reproach. No one can accuse Roberts of ruling as a movement conservative. He’s made himself bulletproof against insinuations that he’s animated by party allegiances.

“But by voting with the conservatives on every major legal question before the court, he nevertheless furthered the major conservative projects before the court--namely, imposing limits on federal power. And by securing his own reputation for impartiality, he made his own advocacy in those areas much more effective. If, in the future, Roberts leads the court in cases that more radically constrain the federal government’s power to regulate interstate commerce, today’s decision will help insulate him from criticism. And he did it while rendering a decision that Democrats are applauding.”

Perhaps the GOP should have run him for president.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Mourning Nora Ephron

She was never boring. In movies, novels and essays, Nora Ephron, who died yesterday at 71, had a gift for breathing life and wit into everything she touched.  

We met cute. On the day Lynda Bird Johnson came to work for me at McCalls in 1966, I found Ephron, a reporter for the New York Post, wandering the office corridors and threw her out of the building.

A few years later when she started free-lancing for magazines, I sent her to interview Henry Kissinger who, between war crimes, was dating starlets and bimbos in his "Power is an aphrodisiac" days. Her piece eviscerated him with a scalpel.

A child of screenwriters, Ephron took to heart her mother’s advice to use whatever happened in life, however bad, in writing: "It's all copy." And so she did, from a lead essay about her breasts at puberty in a first collection to mining her marriages in novels and movies.

Husband No. 1, a genial writer, was immortalized as so paranoid he erased entries in his appointment book at the end of each day, but his foibles were only a prelude to those of her next, Carl Bernstein of "Woodward and..."

In a novel Ephron nailed him as someone "who would have sex with a venetian blind." Harper's got hold of and published their divorce agreement, much of it devoted to how Bernstein would be portrayed in the movie version. As a result, he morphed from Dustin Hoffman in "All the President's Men" to Jack Nicholson in "Heartburn."

From there, Ephron went on to her true calling, writing and later directing romantic comedies such as "When Harry Met Sally," "Sleepless in Seattle" and "You've Got Mail," too easily dismissed as "chick flicks" but just as artful as Hollywood classics of the 1930s that inspired many of them.

She peopled those movies with doughty women from Meg Ryan to Meryl Streep, who refused to play second fiddle in the mating dances she brought to life, just as Ephron herself did in the Hollywood world she inhabited.

If there is an afterlife, Nora Ephron will surely be out there looking for ways to find some human absurdity and a few laughs in it.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Week of Supreme Dread

A tipping point for the national psyche is here as Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia prepare to rule on health care reform, in a decision as predictable as their 2000 vote to put George W. Bush into the White House rather than Al Gore, leading to John Roberts in the chief’s chair of the Supreme Court.

In throat-clearing mode, today's Justices pass up a chance to rethink their Citizens United ukase with a 5-4 bloc vote to reaffirm it against Montana’s challenge to disastrous vote-buying in the state’s political history. Corporations are people, the Justices insist against all evidence of inhuman behavior to the contrary.

Such fading prospects for individual thought and feeling are reinforced by news that computers are inching toward “deep learning” to mimic what goes on in the brain with no bothersome baggage from the human heart.

What will such a 2012 brave new world bring? Beyond chances that overturn of health care reform could create an irreversible downward spiral for Obama’s reelection chances, where will it leave a nation rapidly losing all faith in the ability to govern itself in what used to be an American tradition of optimism—-and, yes, hope.

A poignant reminder of such a bygone world comes with HBO’s “Newsroom,” the work of Aaron Sorkin whose award-winning “West Wing” lifted the spirits of as many as 17 million viewers on network TV during the George W. Bush years.         

A decade later, Sorkin’s unabashedly liberal take on the media reaches a fraction of that many (2 million) on pay TV and draws skeptical, even cynical reviews for theatrical optimism over JFK’s dictum about public life, “You can’t beat brains.”

That may be in doubt these days, but survivors of that period need all the encouragement they can get, as Dan Rather, one of its fallen icons, notes in an approving review:

“There is a battle for the soul of the craft that goes on daily now in virtually every newsroom in the country...It's a fight that matters, not just for journalists but for the country. It centers on whether news reporting is to be considered and practiced--to any significant degree, even a little--as a public service, in the public interest, or is to exist solely as just another money-making operation for owners of news outlets.”

Now, Rupert Murdoch prepares to split his media empire into “news” and “entertainment” entities (say what?) and, barring some religious revelation on the part of John Roberts, the Supreme Court prepares to create chaos by striking down Obama’s health care law.

What psychic world will we be living in by week’s end?

Saturday, June 23, 2012

95-Year-Old Attack Dog Bites Bill Maher

With his stroke-slurred speech, my ancient friend Kirk Douglas last night responded to Bill Maher’s aggressive ignorance with the anatomical suggestion that so many of us, liberal and conservative, have been longing to hear someone make on bleepless HBO.

Ostensibly congratulating Kirk on a book about restoring screenwriter Dalton Trumbo from the Hollywood blacklist of the 1950s with a credit on his 1960 movie “Spartacus,” Maher could not resisting tweaking the 95-year-old actor, “You changed your name to Kirk couldn’t admit back then that you were Jewish.”

As usual, Maher misses the point. Kirk Douglas' career was at the heart of a larger 20th century American story: how the children of refugees from European cruelty went to Hollywood and, as John Updike put it, "out of immigrant joy gave a formless land dreams and even a kind of conscience.”

After World War II and the growing popularity of foreign films had paved the way for more realism, Issur Danielovitch followed a generation of Jewish studio heads and writers out there to explode on the screen with the kind of passion and intensity unseen in pretty-boy Hollywood heroes until then.

The studios changed his name, of course, and Kirk Douglas became the angry star of "Champion," "Ace in the Hole," "Young Man With a Horn" and "Detective Story."
Along the way, according to his first biographical book, "The Ragman's Son," Issur-turned-Kirk played his role of sex symbol as avidly off screen as on.

He went on to become a producer who finally buried political blacklisting by giving Trumbo, who had been writing under aliases, credit for the screenplay of "Spartacus" and continued aging passionately before our eyes for decades.

Over the years, our paths crossed a number of times, but what stands out is the time we were at one of those gatherings where the privileged babble away with no human connection whatever. To keep the conversation going, I suggested a game: Name the actor you would want to star in a movie of your life. “As for me,” I said, nodding at Douglas across the table, “I see Kirk in the part.”

He smiled the familiar dazzling smile that never quite reaches his eyes, a flash of the amused anger that fueled his movie-star charm. I smiled back in what I took to be a moment of shared irony between boys of dirt-poor immigrant parents being wined, dined and bored by the very rich.

Now best-known as Michael Douglas’ father and Catherine Zeta-Jones’ father-in-law, my role model adds another small notch to his belt of moral victories by using Bill Maher’s favorite two-word exhortation to put him in his place.

Kirk's younger admirers, as always, are grateful.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Drinking Sand in a Political Desert

Will this be the ugliest presidential year in living memory? Not a chance.

In 1968, murders (of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy) and Democratic convention riots (over Vietnam) elected Richard Nixon, who brought Watergate criminality to the White House before resigning in disgrace.

Yet, in all that bloody retrospect, something was there that is missing today, a possibility of human connection amid chaos, a sense of being together in a time of division and doubt that now seems gone forever.

A recently rediscovered 44-year-old letter evokes such loss. In it, a woman with an upper East Side Manhattan address writes:

“On the afternoon of June 7, thousands of people were in line (some for as long as 6 hours) waiting to enter St. Patrick’s Cathedral to pay our last respects to Sen. Robert F. Kennedy

“Out of nowhere, a wagon appeared with real ice water and thousands of paper cups, pushed by a man and two young women in white uniforms. The water they passed out to hundreds of us was the sweetest ever tasted, not just because we were thirsty, but it was a gesture so beautifully appropriate on that terrible day.

“There was no sign on the wagon. I only found out later the people were from McCall’s Magazine—-I’ll never forget it.”

I was that man. Watching those people in 95-degree heat from the window of an air-conditioned Park Avenue office had become unbearable. Bringing them water seemed like the only imaginable human response.

Two months later, during the Democratic convention, Jules Feiffer and I got off a delegates bus as young protesters were being herded into a park by helmeted Chicago police with clubs. After we were separated and tear-gassed, a teenager was shoving me to a water fountain to soak my handkerchief and put it over my eyes. I did as I was told.

Decades later, in the movie “The American President,” a White House adviser tells the Oval Office occupant, “People want leadership. They're so thirsty for it they'll crawl through the desert toward a mirage, and when they discover there's no water, they'll drink the sand.”

A discouraged President replies, “People don't drink the sand because they're thirsty. They drink the sand because they don't know the difference.”

We once did.  

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

What Obama Must Do to Win

Let’s step back from depressing daily political news for a longer look at the 2012 narrative.

At the end of summer, Democrats will have a home-field advantage with a convention in early September after Republicans go to bat in the last week of August. A let’s-try-to-love-Romney fest will be followed by a wall-to-wall TV week of making the case for Obama’s first term after umpteen prime-time GOP primary debates bashing it.

If down-in-the-mouth Democrats and open-minded independents are to be energized, that convention and the Obama-Romney debates to follow will be crucial for November.

For a year now, the media have been held captive by a one-sided story line about Obama’s “failures” in hard economic times, countered only by the weak defense that the Administration staved off even worse.

That better-than-terrible narrative, coupled with attacks on Romney’s Bain record, won’t do it in the fall.

If Barack Obama is to be reelected, a truer 2012 story line has to be brought into focus: the near-treasonous four years of subversion of every effort toward recovery on the part of a Republican Congress held captive by Tea Party extremists.

While David Axelrod et al hammer away at Romney in logistical skirmishes, the overarching message has to be retaking America from zealots who have been kept from driving the country off an economic cliff only by the President’s resistance in manufactured debt-ceiling crises and mindless attempts to destroy a social safety net for the poor to preserve and expand tax cuts for the superrich.

Ironically, articulation of that story line comes first from a representative of quietly alarmed traditional Republicans such as Jeb Bush, pointing out how Reagan and his father would have “a hard time” fitting in with today’s ideologues.

On this bleak landscape, tonight will bring heartening news that Democrats have held on to Gabrielle Giffords’ seat in Arizona, but it will take much more than that to get the country moving toward a recovery from Tea Party treachery.

Update: Alarmed Democrats go public with Obama’s need for “a new narrative” this fall:

“It is elites who are creating a conventional wisdom that an incumbent president must run on his economic performance--and therefore must convince voters that things are moving in the right direction. They are wrong, and that will fail. The voters are very sophisticated about the character of the economy; they know who is mainly responsible for what went wrong and they are hungry to hear the President talk about the future. 

“They know we are in a new normal where life is a struggle--and convincing them that things are good enough for those who have found jobs is a fool’s errand. They want to know the plans for making things better in a serious way--not just focused on finishing up the work of the recovery.”

This is James Carville, among others, urging Obama to update Clinton’s 1992 “It’s the economy, stupid” into the future tense.

Whatever. Time to get all hands on deck in full battle dress.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Ages of Anxiety

George H. W. Bush turns 88 this week with a family clambake in Kennebunkport, an HBO special and, despite Parkinson ravages, plans to skydive again at 90.

His biographer calls him “a lion...he embodies the story of postwar American power.” A contemporary can only wish him well while marveling at what has happened to America and its people during our lifetimes since World War II.   

Back then, the poet W. H. Auden won a Pulitzer Prize in 1948 for a long, largely unread poem titled “The Age of Anxiety,” whose title became shorthand for the universal angst of living with dread of atomic annihilation. Children ducking under school desks were a 1950s metaphor for the condition. The sale of tranquilizers became a market marker.

Whether personal or social, the fear of instant mass obliteration—-by Cold War bombing or terrorist attack—-has been a new condition of human life on the planet, its acceptance or denial shaping generations from Baby Boomers on.

Bush 41 is now seen as someone who “suppressed his ego for that long march through all those jobs to get the chance to be president. From the oil business to the White House...(t)here was always a tension in him between the impetus for public service and the impulse to do what it took to win.”

In the light of today’s politics, the man who always had trouble with “the vision thing,” can nonetheless be seen, particularly in the light of what his son gave Americans a decade later, as a traditional American pragmatist in a nostalgic glow.

Yet, in the light of today’s petty bickering about an uncertain future, it seems fair to ask how much 41 contributed to American anxiety now by naming to the Supreme Court the self-described victim of “a high-tech lynching” whose vote gave 43 the Oval Office in 2000 and who will surely vote to overturn 44’s health care law this month.

As the prospect of a possible 45 looms, there is no shortage of anxiety, new and old.

Update: The son who won't succeed him (yet) gives 41 an early birthday present by speaking out against the party that has deserted his father's life work as Jeb denounces today's GOP:

"Ronald Reagan would have, based on his record of finding accommodation, finding some degree of common ground, as would my dad — they would have a hard time if you define the Republican party — and I don’t — as having an orthodoxy that doesn’t allow for disagreement, doesn’t allow for finding some common ground...

"Back to my dad’s time and Ronald Reagan’s time – they got a lot of stuff done with a lot of bipartisan support."

Saturday, June 09, 2012

Sentenced to Sentience in 2012

Unawareness would be a gift in times like these--a blessing to rinse the mind of Mitt Romney, John Boehner, Mitch McConnell and their content-free daily kneejerks as well as pathetic it-could-be-worse defenses of Barack Obama and Joe Biden.

If old age is a shipwreck, an inner voice wheedles, just sit on the sand and stop sending messages in a bottle. On a Netflix life raft, it’s possible to wallow in the past and give up all hope of rescue.

Yet, the present and future keep crowding in. On the 40th anniversary of Watergate, Woodward and Bernstein resurface with a joint byline to claim that Nixon “was far worse than we thought.” An arguable assertion, since many of us thought the Unindicted Coconspirator was as bad as it gets.

And this prompts the question “How bad will it be after next November?”

For those reared on old Hollywood movies and early network TV, the hope of happy endings is ingrained beyond all 21st century evidence to the contrary. Barack Obama’s face keeps superimposing itself on the classic picture of Harry Truman grinning over the headline of Dewey’s victory in 1948.

Image Detail

So, amid all efforts to stop 2012 sentience, one short note in a bottle: Darkest before dawn, you never know what’s around the corner, life is unpredictable and all that.

Meanwhile, tee up the Netflix.

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Can Obama Survive a Supreme Court Defeat?

The ultimate irony of 2012 would be for Mitt Romney to win by running away from health care reforms he once pioneered while Barack Obama’s presidency bleeds out from injuries sustained while trying to pass them nationally.

A new poll shows two-thirds of Americans hope the Supreme Court will overturn some or all of the 2010 law this month. Only 24 percent want the Court to “keep the entire health care law in place.”

When it rules later this month, the Court may well start an Obamacare avalanche to bury not only the individual mandate but underpinnings of the entire law, as Jeffrey Toobin explains in the New Yorker.

That could well be the final nail in the coffin of Democratic hopes to hold on to the White House and/or at least one chamber of Congress.

Toobin destroys wishful thinking that the President could politically survive and “avoid the problem of defending the law on the campaign trail and concentrate instead on issues on which the Democratic view is more popular.

“This is nonsense. In the first place, in politics and the rest of life, it’s always better to win than lose...Moreover, the invalidation of such a central achievement of his Administration would taint Obama’s Presidency would look like Obama overreached in the way that the stereotype suggests that liberals often do in expanding the size of government.

“In the event of a loss, Obama would blame the Court, perhaps for good reason, but for better or worse the Justices will have the last word. In the famous words of Justice Robert Jackson, ‘We are not final because we are infallible, but we are infallible only because we are final.’”

For collectors of ironies, the bottom line in such a November defeat would be that the health-care war was lost not only by the ugly spectacle of both parties in Congress bloating the law into a monstrous mess but a President who let them do it by not taking charge at the start.

Instead on analyzing the red-meat issue and offering a plan to deal with its major components, the President stepped back and tossed it into the Congressional boneyard where it could be shredded into scraps.

Instead of emphasizing how the current system threatens to bankrupt the middle class, Obama chose to reassure them that they could keep their current coverage while appealing to their sense of fairness in bringing 30 million uninsured into it, opening the way for Tea Party demagoguery about socialism.

Instead of acknowledging that cost containment was a complex tangle of provider greed and unbridled patient sense of entitlement, Obama persisted in hazy formulations about bending the cost curve.

And yet, as on every issue in this election, when voters go to the polls, they will be facing a choice between a President suffering from self-inflicted injuries in pursuit of noble goals and a successor who is, in my friend Murray Kempton’s image, a general who stays safely above the battle and comes down later to shoot the wounded.

Barack Obama has made strategic and tactical mistakes in his first term, but he deserves a far better fate than being swept away by the aftermath of a Pyrrhic victory on health care in favor of people whose vocabulary does not recognize “noble” as a national goal.
Update: Small consolation for the President that it may be, a new poll shows only 44 percent of Americans approving of the Supreme Court with three-quarters saying decisions are sometimes influenced by personal or political views, compared to 66 percent of approval ratings two decades ago.

Welcome to the Apocalypse, Mr. Justices.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Velocity of American Anarchy

What just happened? Scott Walker avoids becoming the third U.S. governor in history to be unseated by unhappy voters and, flushed with triumph, immediately declines the Vice-Presidency and suggests a friend and ally instead.

In a week when we are mesmerized by molasses pomp and ceremony celebrating a Queen’s sixty years, the velocity of change in our own society is staggering by contrast.

With each electoral tally, the American political landscape is turning into Yeats’ vision of civilization over there in “The Second Coming” after World War I:

“Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,/The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere/The ceremony of innocence is drowned;/The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.”

The week also brings the death of Ray Bradbury, whose novel “Farenheit 451” foresaw a dystopian America where books are burned and dissent is destroyed, less by tyranny than an “electronic ocean of sound” drowning individual thought and reason.

Nowhere on the horizon is there any hopeful sign of recovery from this summer’s political fever dream.

In Wisconsin, a distraught voter slaps the face of Scott Walker’s disappointing challenger, a gesture more appropriate for the entire American electorate as it sleepwalks blindly toward the edge of anarchy with little hope on the horizon for awakening in time.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Prime Time for True Believers

Political views have not changed much over 25 years, a Pew survey suggests, but party affiliation has driven more Americans to extremes than ever before.

Understanding what they have in common prompts a new look at a social philosopher whose work was praised by one Republican, Eisenhower in the 1950s, and rewarded with a Presidential Medal of Freedom by another, Reagan, just before Eric Hoffer’s death in 1983.

His central theme was the anatomy of what Hoffer called “The True Believer”—-the unthinking adherent of mass movements from Communism and Fascism to Christianity and Islam.

"Passionate hatred," he wrote, "can give meaning and purpose to an empty life. Thus people haunted by the purposelessness of their lives try to find a new content not only by dedicating themselves to a holy cause but also by nursing a fanatical grievance."

In those days, such true believers were limited to the fringes of post-World War II America in the ranks of dwindling Communist faithful and their Joe McCarthy enemies. In a prosperous and optimistic time, their ideas did not take root. But now that the political soil is far different, Hoffer’s description has more relevance:

“All mass movements generate in their adherents a readiness to die and a proclivity for united action; all of them, irrespective of the doctrine they preach and the program they project, breed fanaticism, enthusiasm, fervent hope, hatred and intolerance; all of them are capable of releasing a powerful flow of activity in certain departments of life; all of them demand blind faith and single-hearted allegiance.”

Hoffer’s true believer” is “without wonder and hesitation.” Losing independence in a mass movement, the follower gains “a freedom to hate, bully, lie, torture, murder and betray without shame and remorse.”

As the 2012 election heats up with a 24/7 stream of invective on both sides, a new look at Hoffer could help understanding of where we are and where we are heading.

“There is no greater threat to sanity,” he wrote, “than the taking of one’s life too seriously. No one will miss us long when we are gone. No one will lose his appetite because we are no more.”

Americans could do much worse now than revisit the work of the fabled “Longshoreman Philosopher” who is no more but whose ideas might help those who remain.