Friday, May 31, 2013

A Priest Who Always Flew First-Class

Andrew M. Greeley has died at the age of 85, described by the New York Times as “Priest,  Author,  Scholar, Scold,” writer of 120 books including steamy novels, one of which was a best-seller.

Father Greeley was a combative polymath, often at odds with his Church’s hierarchy. A quarter of a century ago he denounced pedophile priests and later gave a million dollars from his book earnings to an organization for their victims.

Twenty years ago, we shared an airplane ride. He had been a guest speaker at the Magazine Publishers Association in Bermuda and somehow contrived to have my coach ticket upgraded so I could sit next to him in First Class. We spent the two hours parsing a new movie, Ingmar Bergman’s autobiographical masterwork “Fanny and Alexander,”  the shaping of an artist’s sensibility by his widowed mother’s remarriage to a tyrannical Lutheran bishop.

On our plane trip, we traded reactions to Bergman’s brilliant imagery including his boyhood refuge in the home of his grandmother’s Jewish lover and a wistful speech by his uncle about “the little world” of theater that their family inhabited:

“Therefore let us be happy while we are happy. Let us be kind, generous, affectionate and good. It is necessary and not at all shameful to take pleasure in the little world.”

In today’s scandal-plagued Catholic Church, Father Greeley in his prime would have been a rallying figure for dissidents. Even diminished by illness, he wrote his last book about the US in Iraq titled “A Stupid, Unjust and Criminal War.” 

Back in 1983 as we landed at Kennedy, I offered to share my taxi into Manhattan with the celebrity priest. “No, no.” he said. “You must ride with me. My publisher always sends a limousine.”

Even a non-believer can be sure that wherever Andrew Greeley now is, he is still going in style.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Meaning of Bachmann's Departure

Her announced leave-taking from Congress brings a snarky rush over the Tea Party frontrunner for the GOP presidential nomination only two years ago, but Michele Bachmann’s weird six years in the national spotlight deserve serious consideration as a symptom of the times.

How did a mouthy back bencher parlay ignorance that made Sarah Palin look like Winston Churchill into such prominence? And does her downfall amid murky misuse of campaign funds portend a continuing descent of the GOP into a diehard faction of the major party it once was?

From early 2007 when as a newly elected Congresswoman she groped GeorgeW. Bush after his State of the Union and would not let go, Bachmann was clearly more of a mental case than a rising political star, but the endless GOP 2011 debates allowed her to appear presidential alongside the likes of Herman Cain and Rick Perry.

The political system that produced FDR, JFK, Ike and Reagan was disgorging a freak show of anti-Obama venom that overrode all such mundane qualifications as wisdom, political knowhow and sanity. Even after Republicans settled for an Empty Suit Wall Streeter and failed to take the White House, the Tea Party held its grip on Boehner’s redoubt last November, but the signs of slippage keep coming.

Former GOP Sen. Lincoln Chafee is changing party affiliation to Democrat in his bid for reelection as Rhode Island Governor. Tea Party icon Jim DeMint has left the House of Representatives in favor of reformed Latin lover Mark Sanford, and now Bachmann steps aside to allow Minnesotans to vote for a candidate from planet Earth next year.

If the trend continues in 2014 voting, Barack Obama’s last two years in office as a lame duck could turn out his most productive—-and rational-—of all.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

A Sharp Turn in the War on Terror

As the President eulogizes those who fought past and present wars, he also reminds us that a few days ago “I outlined the future of our fight against terrorism--the threats we face, and the way in which we will meet them.”

Amid Memorial Day parades, speeches and war movies on TV, Barack Obama declares that Americans’ post-9/11 mindset has to change: “Our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue. But this war, like all wars, must end.”

But how?  “Neither I, nor any President, can promise the total defeat of terror. We will never erase the evil that lies in the hearts of some human beings, nor stamp out every danger to our open society.”

True, but how do we define evil acts? At what point does lethal madness become terror? If the Newtown killer had left behind any political babble, would he now be ranked with the brothers who perpetrated the Boston bombings? Where do we draw the lines?

The Obama speech, says one national security scholar, “delegitimizes the terrorists. They want to think of themselves as warriors. We want the world...not to think of them as terrorists defending Islam, but as people who are psychos. They are criminals."

In the New Yorker Jane Meyer underscores “the contrast between Bush’s swagger and Obama’s anguish over the difficult trade-offs that perpetual war poses to a free society...While Bush frequently seemed to take action without considering the underlying questions, Obama appears somewhat unsure of exactly what actions to take. That is not a bad thing: at least he is asking the right questions. In fact, by suggesting that, after a decade and seven thousand American and countless foreign lives lost, and a trillion dollars spent, it might be time to start downsizing the ‘war on terror,’ he is leading the national debate beyond where even most Democrats have dared to go.”

After the President consoles Oklahoma tornado survivors on a weekend of American remembrance of those who lose their lives to human violence, he will return to a Washington of man-made turmoil. Not the least of his challenges will be to make good on the effort to refocus homeland security away from total preoccupation with the Middle East.

There will and should be serious debate on relations with new governments there as well as use of drone strikes and the closing of Guantanamo. But it would be helpful to start focusing the war against terror on organized groups plotting violence and leave the tracking down and prevention where possible of acts by the criminally insane to those trained to deal with them.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Clobbered Comforter-in-Chief

When the eight years are over, Barack Obama may go down in history mostly for his grace as America’s designated mourner. This weekend it’s Oklahoma in the endless tour of body-count catastrophes natural and man-made.

As the President pursues ministerial duties, everyone else in Washington is consumed with efforts to defrock him for not preventing deaths at Benghazi or reining in bureaucratic scandals. Opponents have not yet found ways to tax him with hurricanes and tornadoes, but they must be trying to twist sequester results into White House blame.

In the larger sense, all this is a long wake for an America that almost was, where we used to bow our heads in prayer together after disasters with some awareness of common humanity in the face of a tenuous world and work to control our primitive impulses to destroy one another over ideological differences.

Among the many ironies swirling around the figure who started out to unite us all under the banner of “Yes We Can” is that he may end up delivering a eulogy for “No We Wouldn’t.”

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Disneyland Diplomatic Disaster

The President will be meeting China’s President Xi Jinping for a summit in southern California next month, raising hopes it will go better than a bizarre Cold War flap over barring a Soviet leader from visiting Disneyland.

In 1959, Nikita Khrushchev came here in Eisenhower’s lame-duck days and, at his request, visited Hollywood where he happily mingled with Frank Sinatra, Shirley MacLaine and other stars on movie sets. But when he wanted to go to Disneyland, permission was denied for “security reasons.”

The volatile Khrushchev exploded, “I would very much like to go and see Disneyland. But then, we cannot guarantee your security, they say. Then what must I do? Commit suicide? What is it? Is there an epidemic of cholera there or something? Or have gangsters taken hold of the place that can destroy me?"

Three years later, when I was in California during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Hollywood people were sure that ICBMs were aimed at them and also been re-targeted from San Francisco. In the ensuing panic, they emptied supermarkets of toilet paper.

Now President Obama will be hosting his Chinese counterpart at a lavish private estate and will no doubt take him to Disneyland, if asked.

In these days of cyber-spying, what a foreign leader can see at a theme park is the least of American security worries in the face of new reports that Chinese hackers have breached Google’s servers and gained access to a database with years’ worth of information about American surveillance targets.

So enjoy the Magic Kingdom if you choose, Mr. Presidents, and settle in for serious talk about trade, tariffs and North Korea, among all those other issues that have morphed over the past six decades.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Talking Heads from the Wax Museum

Sunday brings White House adviser Dan Pfeiffer to five morning shows claiming the GOP is trying to “drag Washington into a swamp of partisan fishing expeditions, trumped-up hearings and false allegations.”
Pfeiffer’s Energizer Bunny Presidential defense counterpoints the usual suspects wheeled out from the punditry wax museum and animated with higher-volume loops of their usual spiels.

After Pfeiffer’s pitch on “Meet the Press,” David Gregory features a parade of Madame Tussaud figures starting with Mitch McConnell, frozen in his usual startled owl expression, barely moving his lips to  refute a 1987 tape of himself asserting that tax laws are “being abused not just by people on the right but most of the so-called charitable organizations who are arguable violations of their tax-free status and violations of the campaign laws...on the left.”

Facing voters next year, McConnell deviates only enough not to jump on the Benghazi bandwagon but insist that “getting to the bottom of this is an important investigation.”

On the following panel Peggy Noonan turns up her Rupert Murdochian pitch about the “worst Washington scandal since Watergate,” while sitting next to a Bob Woodward effigy mouthing the Obama blame for not being a strong enough President that is now his signature theme in the post-Nixon era.

To cap it all, David Gregory trots out a true figure from the is-he-still-alive-? past, Don Rumsfeld, to plug his new book about leadership.

Mellowed by being a great-grandfather, he is now snideness-free and advises, “If you foul up, tell the boss and correct it fast...Bad news doesn’t get better with time.”

If only he had told George W soon enough about al Qaeda and nuclear weapons in Iraq...

But that was then. Wasn’t it? 

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Angelina Jolie's Preemptive Cancer Strike

The newest name in the annals of breast cancer brings back one from four decades ago that helped change how women—-and doctors-—viewed and treated the affliction. Angelina Jolie, meet Babette Rosmund.

Before 1970, mastectomy was the unquestioned answer for women diagnosed with the disease. Then a 50-year-old writer who had read a magazine article challenged the conventional wisdom.

In McCalls Rosmund learned from a column by Dr. William Nolen about the pioneering work of a Cleveland surgeon who performed lumpectomies, removing only the affected tissue and treating surrounding areas with radiation and chemotherapy.

When she refused to have her breasts removed, Rosmund’s doctor told her she would be “dead within three weeks.” She went to Cleveland, wrote an article about her experience and then a book. Rosmund died in 1997 at the age of 75; her breast cancer never recurred and the treatment she publicized became the standard for women.

Now in the age of advanced genetics, Jolie at 37 tells the world about her decision to undergo a preemptive double mastectomy after being told that she had “an 87 percent risk of breast cancer and a 50 percent risk of ovarian cancer” to avert the fate of her mother who died at 56.

Jolie’s choice and her openness about it are in the brave tradition of Betty Ford, who underwent surgery as First Lady and related all the details to encourage other women to seek detection and treatment.

But now the actress’ OpEd about her experience in the New York Times elicits concerns in the newspaper the following day:

“But some doctors also expressed worry that her disclosure could be misinterpreted by other women, fueling the trend toward mastectomies that are not medically necessary for many early-stage breast cancers. In recent years, doctors have reported a virtual epidemic of preventive mastectomies among women who have cancer in one breast and decide to remove the healthy one as well, even though they do not have genetic mutations that increase their risk and their odds of a second breast cancer are very low.”

On a subject affecting so many lives and families, it’s crucial to go beyond the headlines and make fully informed choices. Browsing the news is not enough.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Obama's Bush League Week

Democrats who have been wishing for years that their party turn as nastily combative as the GOP are getting a taste of what St. Teresa of Avila meant centuries ago by saying, “More tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones.”

Suddenly the Obama White House is besieged by accusations of IRS targeting Tea Party groups and the Justice Department bugging the Associated Press just as the Benghazi talking points todo starts to lose steam.

The White House is on the defensive in the dirty-pool competition, recalling the scandals of Bush II’s final years--but with difference.

Disheartening as these revelations may be and as complex in the AP matter involving an imminent terror attack on American soil, they serve as reminders that bureaucracies can blunder in the Internet Age and the President has to be accountable for what they do.

But as Boehner et al bluster and call for heads to roll, perspective requires distinguishing between today’s furors about failed White House oversight and the Bush scandals emanating directly from the top: the outing of Valerie Plame by Cheney lapdog Scooter Libby and Karl Rove’s attempt, in concert with Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez, to fire Bush’s own US Attorneys for not being zealous enough in prosecuting Democrats.

Even so, the new Washington narrative encourages a mindless equivalence between the two eras and undercuts any momentum the President may have been gathering in getting Washington to function at least at a minimum in days dominated by sequester and scandal.

Yet, as the Obama people work to clean up their own messes, there should be some alternative to turning away in disgust and saying, “To hell with them all.”  The differences remain.

Thursday, May 09, 2013

Gnawing on the Benghazi Bone

In his 1950s heyday, Sen. Joe McCarthy snagged headlines with committee hearings on questions ranging from trivial (“Who promoted Peress?” an Army dentist in New Jersey) to global (“Who lost China?”). The subject was never the point. Uncovering “plots” and “traitors” was.

Darrell Issa is taking us back to that era. No doubt mistakes were made during the chaos of four American deaths in Benghazi, as they almost always are when there are no clear battle lines or enemies, but like McCarthy, Issa is on a mission of prosecution, not investigation.

Now John Boehner, sniffing political paydirt, joins the hunt by calling for release of White House e-mails to breathe new life into an attack on Obama’s reelection and a pre-emptive strike against Hillary Clinton in 2016—-a demagogic twofer if there ever was one.

Prosecutorial slickness has been upgraded since McCarthy’s days of blurting conflicting estimates of Communists in the State Department. Instead of a low-rent hack, we have Issa, the richest man in Congress who is smooth enough to banter regularly with Bill Maher despite iffy Wiki bread crumbs about his own past while amassing a fortune from car alarms.

With help from new aspirants like Marco Rubio and the old team of John McCain and Lindsey Graham, the GOP will wring the Benghazi sponge dry in media that still sees equivalency in two sides of every political argument without weighing their merits.

 In coming days, hearings will continue to produce a string of what blogger Kevin Jones calls “Nothingburgers” while hinting at deep dark plots. Those with long memories will recall that Joe McCarthy eventually ran out of prosecutorial gas and was censured by the Senate.

But his spirit lives on.

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Paranoid Politics: J. Edgar to LaPierre

Seldom in history has file-keeping been a path to power, but last week’s NRA convention celebrated its chief clerk’s kind of national clout unseen since J. Edgar Hoover bullied the White House and Congress half a century ago.

Hoover and Wayne La Pierre, two bombastic file-keepers who rose to control those elected by voters through fear and blackmail, seized and held on to power to push the nation into diametrically opposed directions.

Hoover exploited anxieties over Cold War spying and domestic crime in a time of economic abundance to fuel paranoia and glorify government, his kind of secret policing, at the expense of civil liberties and individual rights.

LaPierre, in contrast, has taken advantage of economic adversity and lunatic nightmares about a minority President to make government itself the straw-man suppressor of citizens’ freedom to arm themselves with weapons of war.

What they have in common is practice of what historian Richard Hofstadter described as “the paranoid style in American politics,” which prompts a proponent to see “conspiracy in apocalyptic terms--he 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.”

Beyond their divergent choice of devils, Hoover and LaPierre share a bone-deep racism, with J. Edgar attempting to hound Martin Luther King into suicide and the NRA pit bull exploiting racial fears about Barack Obama, while stoking anti-Muslim fallout over the Boston bombers.

When the Newtown horror prompted a public outcry over gun violence, the President’s push for the minimal sanity of background checks seemed possible, but with passage of time, a new poll now finds both Republican and Democratic voters saying that the GOP reflects their views on the subject and public desire for gun control waning.

If Clint Eastwood decides to follow his J. Edgar movie with one on LaPierre, he will have a candidate for the lead role in the empty chair he featured at the GOP convention last year.