Thursday, February 28, 2013

Woodward's War on Obama

In four decades, he has gone from journalistically exposing widespread White House criminality that forced a presidential resignation to elder-statesman pique that places himself at the center of a false balance between Barack Obama and the GOP pygmies threatening the economy.

Summoning up the days of Deep Throat, Bob Woodward complains publicly about being pressured by “a very senior person” at the White House over blaming the President for the sequester:

'Look, we don't go around trying to say to reporters, if you, in an honest way, present something we don't like, that, you know, you're going to regret this.'”

Never mind that the negative “threat” was embedded in a long e-mail preceded by an apology: “I apologize for raising my voice in our conversation today. You’re focusing on a few specific trees that give a very wrong impression of the forest. But perhaps we will just not see eye to eye here.”

Holy Haldeman, Erlichman, Mitchell and Colson! These Obama people must be getting ready to bring down the FBI and CIA on the intrepid reporter who dares to oppose them.

Woodward’s effort to put himself up front in the sequester story will no doubt be dramatized in a future episode of HBO’s “Newsroom,” but it’s disheartening to see him elbowing his way into a distraction as the drama unfolds.

Any young beat reporter would remind him that there is no equivalence between a gang of muggers and what the victim does or fails to do in trying to ward them off.

Update: A White House statement insists that "of course no threat was intended. As Mr. Woodward noted, the e-mail from the aide was sent to apologize for voices being raised in their previous conversation. The note suggested that Mr. Woodward would regret the observation he made regarding the sequester because that observation was inaccurate, nothing more. And Mr. Woodward responded to this aide's e-mail in a friendly manner."

Not exactly a Dick Cheney-Scooter Libby reprise, but it will keep Woodward in the cable news spotlight for a few days.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

And the Winner is...Sarah Palin

On the eve of sequester, both sides are outdoing themselves in terrifying Americans about catastrophic cuts, but the name in the award envelope is a golden oldie with a double feature of horrors.

Sarah Palin returns to warn that government will not only break down but is hoarding bullets to deal with the enraged taxpayers.

“If we are going to wet our proverbial pants over 0.3% in annual spending cuts when we’re running up trillion dollar annual deficits,” she confides to Facebook, “then we’re done. Put a fork in us. We’re finished. We’re going to default eventually and that’s why the feds are stockpiling bullets in case of civil unrest.”

She noses out John Boehner whose latest horror scene is over an "outrageous" move by federal immigration officials to release hundreds of illegal immigrants as a way to save money ahead of Friday's deadline.

The competition has been bipartisan as Washington Post columnist David Ignatius suggests the  White House has been joining them in weeks of “blame-game politics. Doesn’t the president see that the GOP is addicted to this showdown at Thunder Road? This is all the power the GOP has these days, really--the ability to scare the heck out of everybody and run the car into the ditch.”

In all this sturm und drang, it is the nation’s union leaders, Obama’s strongest backers, who are calling for sanity by repealing the law that set up sequestration.

“We urge,” says the AFL-CIO executive council, “President Obama and members of Congress of both parties to reject the Republican ransom demands and disarm the hostage takers instead. Only then can we focus on the urgent challenge of fixing the economy, raising wages, investing in our people and putting America back to work.”

Not as sexy as Palin’s call to “stop the hysterics,” but any sign of agreement is heartening.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Boehner's Anatomical Anarchy

The Speaker shoots himself in the foot urging that “the Senate gets off their ass and begins to do something” about sequester cuts. The Upper House fails to agree, leaving John Boehner and his Tea Party captors stuck in the slow-motion anarchy they have unleashed.

GOP politicians these days are racing through thick mud of their own making, gasping for TV air, feet churning, going nowhere—-to create the sight of a government stumbling toward anarchy on the sequester, gun control, immigration and any other serious issue that might come up.

Boehner’s self-inflicted wounds have led the President to his only viable option, two more years of stumping against Republican madness in the hope of wresting control of the House from them in 2014. Meanwhile, he is setting them up for their own voters’ realization that tax money pays for actual services.

That’s a hard and messy lesson for the best-educated electorate in history to be learning at this late date but, even as GOP diehards give up their loony opposition to Chuck Hagel, Secretary of State John Kerry is making the point for German students about our differences with their country in the last century.

“As a society,” he tells them, “we live and breathe the idea of religious freedom and...political tolerance, whatever the point of view.

"People have sometimes wondered about why our Supreme Court allows one group or another to march in a parade even though it's the most provocative thing in the world and they carry signs that are an insult to one group or another.”

That, says Kerry, is “freedom of speech. In America you have a right to be stupid--if you want to be."

As Boehner, Mitch McConnell and their cohorts keep abusing that privilege, isn’t it time for more Americans to be speaking truth to stupid?

Monday, February 25, 2013

Unsequestering Morality

Pace Bill Maher’s aggressive atheism and the Religious Right’s heartless Puritanism, mainline Protestant leaders step forward to urge that the fiscal standoff be framed in “moral choices.”

Almost 100 leaders of the nation’s largest and most influential Christian congregations, calling themselves the “Circle of Protection,” urge Congress and the President to resist “budget cuts that undermine the lives, dignity and rights of poor and vulnerable people.”

Their concern reflects a Norman Rockwell America that still exists somewhere under today’s layers of sound-bite meanness and cynicism, when “love thy neighbor as thyself” could be heard from pulpits.

As the White House warns of how the sequester would cut airport security, teaching jobs and vaccines for children, Republicans keep digging in to avoid taxes on corporations and the richest Americans.

In a reversal of traditional clichés, more realism can be heard inside church walls than in the halls of Congress as Protestant leaders proclaim:

“Important choices must be made: we must weigh the benefits of tax credits for low-income people and tax breaks for high-income people; of nutrition assistance to low-income families and subsidies to agricultural businesses...

“Congress can and must develop a balanced and thoughtful path forward that protects the most vulnerable and preserves economic opportunity.”

For those who respect the faith of religious Americans even though they do not share it, this effort to unsequester their traditional moral beliefs is a heartening sign of sanity.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Downton Abbey's Dubious Departures

Season 3 is gone and so are two of the most appealing characters, reflecting not the choice of series creators but career moves by young actors, latest in a long list of modestly talented young people who keep overestimating their contributions to a TV triumph.

Julian Fellowes, mastermind of “Downtown,” makes it clear that killing off Lady Sybil and Matthew Crawley was not his idea, that “the actor wanted to leave rather than anyone's dying just for the sake of the plot...They would both be in the series till the end of it, if it were up to us."

There is something primal here about young people rejecting nurturing homes to strike out before they are ready, causing pain to those who love them. If precedent is any guide, Jessica Brown-Findlay and Dan Stevens will survive in show biz, but “Downton” will be their high point.

Stevens’ Broadway debut in “The Heiress” is labeled “shiny, well spoken and lacking in discernible undercurrents” by the Times, while Brown-Findlay bears her breasts in a movie “Albatross,” notable for “the clang of cliché.”

Mediocrity has been the fate of their predecessors such as Shelley Long, who prematurely departed “Cheers” to sink without trace, as well as David Caruso, who left “NYPD Blue” for movie stardom but is now back on series TV, playing middle-aged versions of his original role.

In the middle of its long run, Rob Lowe left “West Wing” to star in movies and two other TV series that sank without trace.

As we grieve for Sybil and Matthew’s youthful demise, old age consoles us with Maggie Smith’s return for Season 4. Dame Maggie, who told “60 Minutes” she has never watched “Downton,” will return as a concession to time that has ended her stage career.

Fellowes is auditioning a new life partner for the now-widowed Lady Mary and her baby heir, so we can be sure that life will go on upstairs at the Abbey even as the Bateses, Carson et al thrive below.

The lesson here may have best been summed up in the show business classic, “All About Eve,” when an exasperated playwright yelled at the temperamental star, “When will the piano realize it hasn’t written the concerto?”

“Downton Abbey” will play on. 

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Sex Scandal Rehab: Sanford and Petraeus

As a former governor tries to wash himself clean in South Carolina, David Petraeus surfaces briefly to underscore what was lost in last year’s media circus, a much more able and honorable public figure.

Mark Sanford has to explain away deception and misuse of public funds, while the former General is still serving time in publicity purgatory for one large misstep, more preyed upon than predator, acknowledged and paid for with a no-excuse resignation.

Petraeus is praising an inspirational book by a dying soldier who has called him hero and mentor, “Tell My Sons” by 41-year-old Lt. Col. Mark Weber, who served under him in Iraq and Afghanistan and is now fighting terminal cancer.

Weber’s book, addressed to his three boys, has been lauded by the current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and three of his predecessors as well as Donald Rumsfeld and former Vice-President Walter Mondale.

Petraeus’ testimonial is the most poignant: “The book arrived at a challenging time for me. It is wonderful--equal parts inspirational and sobering. It is a tremendous reminder of the blessings that we all have, regardless of our personal was inspirational, at a key moment.”

Whether or not Sanford can rehabilitate himself is of no great moment, but the loss of Petraeus is another matter. His military-political skills will be missed.

The man who got us out of Iraq without a Vietnam-like disgrace is still only 60. When the next President takes office in 2017, Petraeus will have been out of the armed forces for the six years required to qualify for Secretary of Defense.

In the light of current doubts, even among Democrats, about the stature of Chuck Hagel, a President Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden or Jeb Bush might be well advised to turn to Petraeus, who understands the Pentagon in his bones and who, if the armed forces were still plagued by abuse of women, would be highly motivated to solve the problem.

That could be a second chance for both a man who fell from grace and the nation.

Monday, February 18, 2013

GOP Hope: Jeb Bush's Great Society?

After Marco Rubio runs second to a Carnival cruise ship in last week’s watery mishaps, a fellow Floridian bobs to the surface hugging a fifty-year-old life preserver.

In a speech, Jeb Bush asserts that a neo-Lyndon Johnson is the answer to refloating the sinking GOP:

“He went and he cajoled, he begged, he threatened, he loved, he hugged, he did what leaders do, which is they personally get engaged to make something happen.”

By no means is Bush III advocating a new Great Society, but his 2016 self-positioning is another sign of a new Republican undertow, following such other ripples as Karl Rove’s pushback against Tea Party crazy Steve King’s Senate bid in Iowa.

The sight of a Bush and Rove as centrists is one measure of where the GOP is heading in its efforts to rebalance in a second Obama term with embrace of immigration reform and a possible deal on sequesters.

As John McCain and Lindsey Graham run out of steam on their Benghazi bluster and Hagel-blocking while Rand Paul pipedreams of a Presidential bid, the Washington scene seems set for easing gridlock.

If the President is relaxed enough to be seen golfing with former pariah Tiger Woods rather than John Boehner, anything can happen as Jeb Bush tells Republicans, “We can’t be anti-progress, we can’t be anti-innovation, anti-technology.”

GOP moderation is on the march.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

American Split-Screen Night

As cops close in on the fiery last stand of a mass murderer, a continent away Barack Obama tries to smoke out those who have been holding America hostage with lethal ideology.

The Christopher Dorner story may be over, but the President’s State of the Union assault on Tea Party barricades is just the start of a long siege.

For over an hour last night he fired off a fusillade of rational proposals to raise the minimum wage, reform immigration, expand education and otherwise invest in the economy, but he will have to take the battle with Congress to the streets.

As polls show even more Americans than those who reelected Obama solidly behind him, the President will have to keep campaigning across the country in coming months to pressure GOP incumbents into action between now and 2014.  

Marco Rubio’s lame response underscores their rote resistance. Looking like a sweaty Albert Brooks in “Broadcast News,” the party’s New Hope offers nothing but bromides against big government and the news that he has just finished paying off his student loans.

All this was to be expected, but the highlight of the night was Barack Obama’s impassioned peroration on legislation for gun control.

To an audience including families of victims, he pointed to the parents of 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton, who attended his inauguration and was killed “a mile away from my house” in Chicago a week later:

“Hadiya’s parents, Nate and Cleo, are in this chamber tonight, along with more than two dozen Americans whose lives have been torn apart by gun violence. They deserve a vote.

“Gabby Giffords deserves a vote. The families of Newtown deserve a vote. The families of Aurora deserve a vote.

“The families of Oak Creek, and Tucson, and Blacksburg, and the countless other communities ripped open by gun violence--they deserve a simple vote.

“Our actions will not prevent every senseless act of violence in this country. Indeed, no laws, no initiatives, no administrative acts will perfectly solve all the challenges I’ve outlined tonight. But we were never sent here to be perfect. We were sent here to make what difference we can, to secure this nation, expand opportunity, and uphold our ideals through the hard, often frustrating, but absolutely necessary work of self-government.”

John Boehner, Eric Cantor, Mitch McConnell and their minions were there to hear those words, but will their constituents persuade them to act on them?

Monday, February 11, 2013

Paranoid State of the Union

The President will promise progress, GOP and Tea Party rebuttals will predict doom, but a provocative report on America’s state of mind is already available online in sniper Christopher Dorner’s manifesto, a mélange of over-the-top paranoia gripping California with fear and hero-worship, a rogue society-trained killer out of the Bourne movies meets Charlie Sheen in media land.

Exactly 50 years ago, on the eve of JFK's assassination, historian Richard Hofstadter delivered a lecture that morphed into a classic book, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” predicting the escalation of madness in which we live today, in Washington, Hollywood and elsewhere.

The prototypical figure, he wrote, “traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values. He is always manning the barricades of civilization... he does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised, in the manner of the working politician. Since what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, what is necessary is not compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish.”

As the President tries to marshal the forces of reason on gun control and other issues, a paranoid opposition is still obsessed with Benghazi and blocking his cabinet nominees. Do their rhetorical rants make any more sense than those of Dorner, who kills innocents to satisfy his grievances against those remotely related to his imagined oppressors?

“Since the enemy,” Hofstadter wrote, “is thought of as being totally evil and totally unappeasable, he must be totally eliminated — if not from the world, at least from the theatre of operations to which the paranoid directs his attention. This demand for total triumph leads to the formulation of hopelessly unrealistic goals, and since these goals are not even remotely attainable, failure constantly heightens the paranoid’s sense of frustration. Even partial success leaves him with the same feeling of powerlessness with which he began, and this in turn only strengthens his awareness of the vast and terrifying quality of the enemy he opposes.”

This all-or-nothing state of mind dominates the culture beyond politics and crime. Netflix comes along this week with its first self-made series, a brain-dead version of “The West Wing” in which everyone in Washington is evil, outdoing even “Homeland” in its award-winning sourness about the mentality of those who govern America.

Whatever politicians tell us about the state of the union, beyond and beneath the speeches is a nation wallowing in paranoia and resisting reason in favor of rising madness.

Dorner may be captured or killed, but his spirit will live on.

Thursday, February 07, 2013

"Support Mental Health or I'll Kill You"

That message from an ancient bumper sticker comes to mind as a frustrated Congress tries to paper over American gun madness by throwing money at services for the mentally ill instead of keeping deadly weapons out of the hands of mass killers.

Who will quarrel with a proposed law to spend $1.4 billion over ten years to “strengthen the nation’s mental health services and perhaps stave off violent acts by the mentally ill?”

Such services could certainly help desperate families with nowhere to turn for help, but will they be more than a band-aid to cover the Second Amendment insanity afflicting the whole society?

Only if mental health professionals set up shop in Washington to treat lawmakers with anxiety disorders over opposing the National Rifle Association’s paranoia in keeping them from limiting automatic weapons and bullet clips that end scores of lives in seconds.

Would any clinic have disarmed the man who pleaded guilty yesterday to shooting up a Family Research Council Office with a pistol, two magazines and 50 rounds of ammunition to "kill as many as possible and smear the Chick-Fil-A sandwiches in victims' faces?"

After World War II, when mental illness was still a subject not openly discussed in polite society, it took decades to raise public awareness of the need to support medical help for treatment, however uncertain the results might be.

How long will it take to change attitudes toward the gun madness of a whole society? Dr.  Joe Biden and his colleagues have a long way to go. 

Monday, February 04, 2013

The New Age of Contact Sport

Super Bowl Sunday comes and goes with reminders of how violent American life has become in 2013.

Before the Game, “Meet the Press” unwittingly juxtaposes a parallel between politics and sport as outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta anguishes about the Tea Party threat of automatic budget cuts by sequester, “Why in God’s name would members of Congress elected by the American people take a step that would badly damage our national defense? But more importantly, undermine the support for our men and women in uniform. Why would you do that?”

In another segment, sportscaster Bob Costas bewails how “dangerous” and “barbaric” football has become to the point that President Obama tells an interviewer, “If I had a son, I’d think long and hard before I let him play football.”

Hard-fought but clean competition is long gone in a time when winning isn’t enough—-there are bounties to “splatter” opponents and knock them out of the game. (In the Hagel hearings, McCain attacks like an obsessed linebacker.)

Elsewhere in the news, public shooting deaths proliferate as Congress wavers on even small steps toward gun control and fights every attempt to ease the plight of Baby Boomers who see their expected retirement melt away in a continuing recession.

On this day of cold pizza and reheated chili, the aches and pains of Super Sunday will be felt by millions more than the players who were on the field.