Monday, September 30, 2013

The World Ends Tomorrow

Civilization as we know it has only 24 hours left. Those who doubt that can cling to a faint hope offered by Barack Obama’s favorite physician/writer.

During the health care debate in 2009, the President made his staff read a New Yorker article by Dr. Atul Gawande dramatizing the borderline thievery sanctioned by America’s fee-for-service system: about two communities in Texas, one with the second-highest per-capita Medicare costs in the country, twice those of a neighboring city with no discernible health benefits as a result of doctor-owned hospitals, surgery centers and diagnostic-test facilities.

Now Dr. Gawande reports that “as of October 1st, is scheduled to open for business. A Web site where people who don’t have health coverage through an employer or the government can find a range of health plans available to them, it resembles nothing more sinister than an eBay for insurance. Because it’s a marketplace, prices keep falling lower than the Congressional Budget Office predicted, by more than sixteen per cent on average. Federal subsidies trim costs even further, and more people living near the poverty level will qualify for free Medicaid coverage.”

As the Tea Party fights to shut down the government over such infamy, whether or not the new law of the land will help the catastrophically sick and uninsured depends on where they live, with some states (California, New York, Minnesota, Maryland) complying and others (Indiana, Texas, Utah, South Carolina) doing everything they can to obstruct implementation.

Now the critical moment is at hand in a clash between John Boehner, who interned sweeping out his father’s saloon, and such as Dr. Gawande, a Harvard professor who directs the World Health Organization's effort to reduce surgical deaths.

As Republicans keep pointing out, it’s still a free country. Choose your own care giver and hope for the best.

Update: In one respect, GOP no-nothings have succeeded: Polls show most Americans know little about the Affordable Care Act, and much of that is wrong.

Less than half of the uninsured plan to get coverage through a state or federal exchange, a low number that may result from lack of knowledge about them, since 7 in 10 say they are “not too or not at all familiar” with these health insurance exchanges.

Those for whom Obamacare could mean life or death have been brought into suicidal confusion by vicious Tea Party lies.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Wake Me When It's Over

While tired Americans hide under the covers, Congress goes to work every day to haggle over going to work.

Why bother? Wouldn’t the country be better off if lawmakers stayed in bed too?

Capitol Hill’s Sleeping Beauty, Michele Bachmann, arises from a two-year stupor to proclaim, "This isn't load limits on turnip trucks that we're talking about. This is...a consequential bill that will impact every American, and that's why you have such passionate opinions. And we're not giving up and we're not caving in that easily."

Unwittingly as always, the former GOP Presidential frontrunner puts her finger on the Tea Party problem. Don’t like a law Congress passed? Filibuster its implementation two years later. Feel oppressed by the White House, Supreme Court, Senate and your own House? Defund everything.

If all else fails, what next? Just wait for the debt-limit debate and start all over again. As Mike Nichols and Elaine May used to say about pretentious poseurs in their act, “It’s really a moral problem, and they’re so much more interesting than real problems.”

Even Nancy Pelosi may be getting tired of the charade, missing one key vote to celebrate her fiftieth wedding anniversary. Why not? They will still be stalling when she gets back.

Meanwhile, real problems will have to wait. All this is a moral dilemma, and politicians can’t be bothered by trivia.

Wake me when it’s over. If they haven’t settled it by then, there will be the World Series to watch. Those games always start on time. 

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Cruz/Boehner Timetables Out of Whack

The Speaker is being treated like just another illegal by the now-ubiquitous Texan. If John Boehner can’t keep Ted Cruz’s hands off his caucus, members will be pushed across the border of sanity and Boehner will be out of a job next year.

Cruz himself has a different timetable. Secure in a Senate seat for six years, he can aim his efforts at 2016, which have already borne fruit in early polling of GOP zealots.

Boehner, weirdly tan as ever, is not visibly blanching at the prospect, but his two-year struggle to straddle the Tea Party and sane GOP horses riding off in different directions has been upset by an interloper from the other House.

“The Republican Party right now,” says New York Magazine, “most closely resembles a Weatherman gathering from about 1969, with various factions debating the feasibility of immediate Communist revolution versus building a working-class movement as a prelude to smashing the state...

“The agenda has largely been driven by the ‘Defund Obamacare’ faction, led by Ted Cruz, which proposes to shut down the federal government until such time as President Obama agrees to abolish his health-care plan, which would of course be never.”

The irony is that his own chamber has rebuffed Cruz with a vote in which 23 Republicans joined all the Democrat by opting for reality, a commodity in short supply in the House of Representatives.

As Boehner’s buffoons respond with a ransom note demanding a one-year delay in funding Obamacare, the standoff continues. Even after this skirmish is resolved, the unprecedented crisis of American self-governing will go on.

“We’ve had enough of the disunity in our party,” Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Boehner’s Iago and panting-to-be successor, tells colleagues. “The headlines are Republicans fighting Republicans.”

As usual, Cantor has it wrong. What we are seeing is Republicans fighting over two centuries of American history. They had better take a second look at that span as they try to extricate themselves from the conflicts in the Cruz-Boehner timetables.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Trayvon Martin's Forebears

Medgar Evers, James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman... On a suburban library screen, those faces impress two dozen residents of mixed races yesterday with the Mississippi martyrdom of young men 50 years ago.

In a showing and discussion of PBS’ “Eyes on the Prize,” there is a sense of wonder and disbelief at the organized cruelty and mendacity of that time but, for one who lived through it, the pain remains.

News of George Zimmerman, his continuing erratic behavior and wife’s doubts about his innocence, brings up the face of Trayvon Martin, another young man dead before his time in the South.

In Maryland, a University officer bitterly tells honors students that "it is legal to hunt down and kill American children in Florida," resulting in outrage not about what happened there but against the official for saying it.

The election and reelection of Barack Obama reassure America that things have changed. They surely have, but will the second African-American president still have to bear the open and disguised racial hatred that has surrounded the first?

Just yesterday, Arizona’s National Committeeman Bruce Ash confided on Facebook that the President on Obamacare is “shucking and jiving,” echoing Rush Limbaugh who last month called Obama’s Syria policy “Operation Shuck and Jive,” a phrase that dates back to the era when slaves were stereotyped as foot-shuffling simpletons.

The arc of the universe may bend toward justice, as Martin Luther King believed, but it is long indeed.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Popping Pills in a Double Depression

Mental health is keeping statistical pace with the economy. As jobless figures and GNP paint a sickly picture, record numbers of Americans are on antidepressants.

Is there a connection? Or perhaps the better question is: How could there not be?

Just as national leaders stumble around in Washington in a vain attempt to appear rational, individuals doubt their own sanity and doctors around the country, often wrongly, prescribe tons of medication to mask every symptom of unease.

Government is more art than science and so is psychiatry. Both require at minimum the ability to grasp reality and deal with it in a humanly imperfect way, to face painful tradeoffs in life, accept responsibility and get on with it.

Yet on both levels, Americans live in denial. Congress and the White House parry and posture to avoid rational decisions that would keep the economy from falling out of bed while equally bumbling doctors prescribe pills for patients, nearly two-thirds of whom do “not meet the criteria for major depressive episode as described by the psychiatrists’ bible, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders,” according to a new Johns Hopkins study.

“It’s not only that physicians are prescribing more, the population is demanding more,” the lead researcher explains. “Feelings of sadness, the stresses of daily life and relationship problems can all cause feelings of upset or sadness that may be passing and not last long. But Americans have become more and more willing to use medication to address them.”

As fights over health care and government shutdown go on in Washington, the President and Congress would do well to stop talking about panaceas and help Americans who are being hurt by economic depression stop masking their reactions with pills that numb them into bearing up under the resulting reality—-or at least in the case of the Tea Party, take some of them themselves.

Right now, the only ones feeling no pain in this American Double Depression are the pharmaceutical companies.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Cruz Carnival, Heading Aground

After nine months in office, Texas’ junior Senator has seized the GOP stage, a perhaps unspectacular feat in light of the party’s leadership vacuum.

What his colleagues have to decide now is whether Ted Cruz is anything more than a loudmouth Pied Piper leading them off the edge of rationality to political irrelevance, a Sarah Palin in pants spouting absurdities, a potentially imminent beneficiary of Congress’ excellent health coverage, physical and mental, like Michele Bachmann.

Is his vowing to speak against Obamacare “until I’m no longer able to stand” a parliamentary move or the work of a premier performance artist?

In these disturbing days, as we all try to navigate our private worlds as best we can, it’s unnerving to be awash in shameless madness to the point of doubting our own sanity in a real world. Why has Ted Cruz been visited on us?

Did we miss Glenn Beck so much that we needed a clone on the Senate floor to compare his doubters to appeasers of Nazi Germany in the 1940s?

At the moment that Cruz is seizing the attention of 24/7 media with all this, Barack Obama is at the United Nations, demonstrating once again America’s good fortune in having a President who, for all his shortcomings, is still learning from experience and trying to keep the nation sane.

GOP “leaders” like John Boehner and Mitch McConnell are hiding in the deep Capitol weeds, hoping against hope the Cruz storm will blow over without wrecking their chances to hold on to their pitifully powerless jobs.

Voters can only feel as if they have booked one of those touted luxury liners with a mad captain running it aground while the Wall Street Journal is on the Tea Party intercom reassuring passengers everything is under “Cruz control.”

Maybe so, but not everybody has a first-class cabin like Rupert Murdoch.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Mariano the Matador

At my first and only bullfight eons ago, I was surprised by an inner surge rising in my blood at the matadors’ movements, an unconscious response to pure grace and courage.

In baseball, opposing batters pose no physical threat but, in the years between, Mariano Rivera has brought back that sensation by his demeanor on the mound and the sureness of his mastery over the fears that envelop us all as we move through life.

As Rivera ascends into myth, it is not the remarkable statistics we will remember but the man himself, embodiment of all those virtues Hemingway wrote about but in a figure devoid of the bullfighter’s self-important preening.

In his farewell tour, the tributes by those who opposed him were remarkably heartfelt. They were not only honoring his numbers and broken bats but something more, the essence of what competition should be—-clean, honorable and self-deprecating.

We will miss him, but what he leaves behind will remain.

Can the GOP Pick Up Their Pieces?

They are looking like the last scene in “Bridge on the River Kwai:” devastation everywhere, dazed survivors mumbling “Madness, madness.”

With only a week to go before another disastrous government shutdown, the Disloyal Opposition is splintering into fragments, turning on one another in hitherto unforeseen ways.

Fox’s Chris Wallace is amazed to get “unsolicited research and questions, not from Democrats but from top Republicans, to hammer [Ted] Cruz” while Karl Rove pontificates:

“You cannot build a Congressional majority in either party...unless you are treating your colleagues with some certain amount of respect, and saying, ‘Hey, what do you think of my idea?’ Instead they have dictated to their colleagues through the media, and through public statements, and not consulted them about this strategy at all.”

Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill opines: “I don’t think in America we should throw tantrums when we lose elections and threaten to shut down the government and refuse to pay the bills. The American people had a choice last November.”

What we may see in coming weeks is the Tea Party’s big blowout, the final test of whether a movement that at heart hates all government can exist within a traditional political party dedicated to controlling, not destroying it.

When it’s all over, Republicans will be unable to abolish Obamacare or defund it. The law they helped pass in 2010, with all its imperfections, will stand. Neither will they be able to use the debt ceiling debate to lower the nation’s credit rating again.

What they may accomplish is fragmenting themselves so badly that a majority of voters next year and in 2016 will no longer be able to see the GOP as a coherent whole.

That would be the saddest outcome of all. America needs two rational parties.  

The Emmys: A Sour Grapes Prequel

After watching last night's Emmys, I am moved to re-post this from July 20, 2013:

Talk about voter fraud, consider this: The brain-damaged “House of Cards” gets nine Emmy nominations this year while Aaron Sorkin’s brilliantly flawed “Newsroom” is barely cited.

The hyped-up news is that “the online streaming network Netflix, best known until recently for rerunning other companies’ old shows and films, officially joined its cable and broadcast counterparts in the race for television’s most prestigious prizes, picking up more than a dozen nominations, including a best drama nod for its political thriller ‘House of Cards.’”

Turn the deck face up and you can see the truth. “Cards,” a bad re-do of a sly 1990 British series of the same name, is rated by Netflix viewers at two stars (“didn’t like”) while its predecessor gets three (“liked”).

If Netflix’s Emmy coup represents anything deeper than a change in content providers, it is the McDonaldization of TV drama, an instant delivery of 13 slabs of fatty spiced-up stuff for those who might mistake it for filet mignon.

Chalk it all up to Netflix’s wooing of Academy voters, along with their possible discomfort over the openly liberal political tone of “Newsroom.” Corporate show biz is still the scared-rabbit venue it was back in the Joe McCarthy days of blacklisting. So it’s safer to cite Jane Fonda and Jeff Daniels rather than the series itself.

“House of Cards” will win its share of Emmys but the public knows better.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

A New Mission for Mike Bloomberg

The billionaire who will soon be New York’s former mayor has a post-retirement vocation ready and waiting for him: making real progress in getting rid of America’s guns.

Seven years ago, Mike Bloomberg co-founded Mayors Against Illegal Guns, which grew from 15 to 1,000 mayors in 46 states, including Republicans, Democrats, and Independents around the country.

When he completes a dozen admirable years of managing the nation’s largest unruly city, Bloomberg at 71, the seventh richest American, can cap his business and political career by not only pursuing that political and public-relations fight against deadly weapons but opening a second front against gun madness by funding and fronting an effort to reverse perversion of the Second Amendment by George W. Bush’s Supreme Court.

In the face of NRA insanity, Congress and the public forget it was only five years ago in 2008 that Antonin Scalia’s deciding vote turned the Second Amendment on its head, ending almost a century of legal interpretation that the “right to bear arms” was not meant for individuals.

Since then, no one has challenged that radical revision of the Constitution. Even Barack Obama, in feeble and futile efforts to limit rampant gun ownership, has accepted that view.

Why should a bleeding nation wait for more changes in the Court to keep challenging that decision and the helplessness it has produced to stem the damage?

Even in 2008, Scalia himself showed some restraint: “Nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.”

Bloomberg is no lawyer but, with the means and determination to make a real change, he can fund a constant stream of cases aimed at forcing the Court to rethink and either reaffirm or revise that five-year old catastrophe.

This is one overriding issue on which not to “kill all the lawyers” but use them to stop all the killing.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Is the GOP Driving Us Crazy?

If McCain, Graham, Boehner, Cruz, Rand Paul et al shut up, would our mental health be better? Without such nasty sounds in our heads 24/7, would there be less violence in America?

A proposed GOP filibuster on defunding Obamacare raises such questions in the light of a provocative essay about the angrier voices schizophrenics hear in America as opposed to India and elsewhere in the world.

A Stanford anthropologist suggests that “the greater violence in the voices of Americans with schizophrenia may have something to do with those of us without schizophrenia. I suspect that the root of the differences may be related to the greater sense of assault that people who hear voices feel in a social world where minds are so private and (for the most part) spirits do not speak.

“We Americans live in a society in which, when people feel threatened, they think about guns. The same cultural patterns that make it difficult to get gun violence under control may also be responsible for making these terrible auditory commands that much harsher.”

Such speculation may be academic, but wouldn’t we all benefit from a lowering of the endless screaming of TV talking heads, tweeters and bloggers that assaults us?

A century ago, President Teddy Roosevelt, a warrior by nature, recommended that America “speak softly and carry a big stick.” Three years after his White House tenure, T.R. left the Republicans and ran for the Presidency again, forming the Bull Moose Party “to dissolve the unholy alliance between corrupt business and corrupt politics."

When the GOP comes to its senses again in this century, it may result in breaking that alliance, speaking more softly and removing those angry voices that constantly keep assaulting our heads today.

At the very least, it could stop driving us crazy.

The Pope Makes Republicans Look Medieval

Primal prejudices are intractable, but American liberals of my era are put to the test with a new Pope professing a large-hearted vision of the Catholic faith even as the Tea Party hunkers down in Washington to defend to the death its deep belief that the poor and the sick are unlovable and evil.

Religion and politics collide in a spiritual train wreck. Those of rational bent are hard-pressed to sort out where America is going.

In his first authorized interview, Francis I says, “The proclamation of the saving love of God comes before moral and religious imperatives, adding that the Church “is the home of all, not a small chapel that can hold only a small group of selected people...We must not reduce the bosom of the universal church to a nest protecting our mediocrity.”

Here, in the so-called New World, a GOP group YouTubes an ad showing a young woman in hospital gown, feet in stirrups for a gynecological exam, when an Uncle Sam caricature pops up and the messages, “Don’t let government play doctor” and “Opt out of Obamacare” flash on the screen.

At the same time, House Republicans slash billions from food stamp programs, a move described as “the most heartless bill I have seen” by a long-time Democratic Congressman but justified by Speaker John Boehner, captive of his mindless Kamikaze caucus, as “getting Americans back to work a priority again for our nation’s welfare programs.”

Just as burning at the stake was a way of clearing the minds of heretics in the good old medieval days.

In his interview, the Pope recalls, “A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality. I replied with another question: ‘Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?’ We must always consider the person.”

Someone should tell that to Tea Party here and, in next year’s election, take away their matches.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Obama, McCain and Their New Pen Pals

In the age of sound bites, the President and his 2008 opponent are reviving an ancient art, lobbing letters at foreign adversaries rather than missiles, an improvement no doubt but neither quite has the hang of it.

John McCain, in his usual retro style, sends Putin an old-fashioned “Dear Sir, You Cur” missive, telling his constituents, “I am pro-Russian, more pro-Russian than the regime that misrules you today. They punish dissent and imprison opponents. They rig your elections. They control your media.”

Speaking of which, McCain sends his screed to the wrong Pravda (don’t ask, it’s complicated) but Putin surely gets the message. Will they exchange seconds to arrange for an old-fashioned shootout on some neutral ground, say an OK Corral in Turkey?

Obama, on the other hand, finds a new pen pal by passing notes in the international schoolyard with Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, who sees in the exchange “subtle and tiny steps for a very important future.”

A welcome change in tone from that of his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was prone to offhand remarks such as that about Israel: “The regime that occupies Jerusalem must vanish from the pages of time.”

Still and all, President Obama, who has accumulated painful experience in trying to find common ground with adversaries at home and abroad, is chastened enough to say only that Rouhani “is somebody who is looking to open dialogue with the West and with the United States, in a way that we haven’t seen in the past. And so we should test it.”

By all means, he and McCain should keep expressing themselves on paper rather than with tons of hardware, but be sure to use enough postage and double-check the addressee’s residence.

In doing so, they may want to keep in mind the strategy of statesman-author Winston Churchill: “History will be kind to me for I intend to write it.”

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

No News on "Newsroom"

Waiting this long to watch your recorded season finale doesn’t even earn you a “spoiler alert.” The question hanging in the air for those who enjoy Aaron Sorkin’s HBO media circus is whether or not the show will be back for a third season.

As the season ender ties up so many plot knots, it’s natural to wonder if the fast-talking characters have finally run out of steam. And it doesn’t help to learn that ratings were down for the sendoff installment.

The official position is that everybody wants a Season 3 but (harrumph) scheduling issues need to be worked out. Don’t hold your breath.

The main problem may be that events keep overtaking the show, i.e., how do you build a whole season around the question of one use of poison gas, when such toxic weapons have been preoccupying the real world for weeks—-and with much more complexity?

Internally, if “Newsroom” does come back, it will require a major retooling of the MacKenzie-Will relationship. Those who remember when the sexual tension went out of the Diane-Sam duet on “Cheers,” the chemistry went away and never came back.

But fans can hope. After two seasons of juggling two men, Maggie Jordan is the only main character left unmated and with ugly short red hair to boot.

If Sorkin and HBO work out their “scheduling” problems, we may get to see it grow back and revert to its normal color and length. That would be nice for her and the rest of us.

One thing is sure: There won’t be any shortage of new political and media issues to bounce off, as those who witnessed last night’s Daily Show takedown of CNN’s coverage of the DC shootings will attest. 

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

"Let 'Em Eat Cake," Says the Tea Party

If watchers saw “The Hunger Games” as fantasy, Washington politicians are working hard to turn it into a reality show.

Tom Colicchio, head judge of TV’s “Top Chef,” notes that “if Congress manages to cut $20 to $40 billion” from food stamps, “there’s no way charity can make that up. All the fund-raisers in the world are not going to get back to that number. Are we O.K. with people starving in the streets?”

He is a board member of Food Policy Action, a group to “support healthy diets, reduce hunger at home and abroad, improve food access and affordability,” among other goals, that now rates members of Congress on how they vote on such issues.

Not surprisingly, members of the Tea Party fill the ranks of those who agree with Marie Antoinette before the French Revolution that, if people have no bread, “Let 'em eat cake.” If voters are paying attention, they may want to sharpen guillotines for the November 2014 balloting.

Nobody’s perfect, but Ohio Rep. Steve Stivers managed to score zero on averting starvation, while Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt and Kansas Congressman Mike Pompeo were in single digits.

Not only are Americans going hungry in the richest country history has ever known but cheap nutrition among the poorest is contributing to bad health for the future, with rising numbers of elementary school children suffering from high blood pressure, high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, even gallstones.

So we have the spectacle of feckless politicians devouring the welfare of future generations in every way possible. Only the Obamas are lobbying for their health.

Can we really stomach that?

Monday, September 16, 2013

Gun-Loving Congress Flinches

When the shooting started in Washington today, there was no hesitation in the Capitol two miles away: Both houses shut down with no debate about Second Amendment rights. In the face of possibly imminent danger to themselves, gung-ho NRA-loving lawmakers did the equivalent of hiding under their desks.

Now we face the usual ritual that follows random gun massacres: counting the dead and wounded, listening to the pointless bleating of “security” analysts, searching for “motives” to explain madness that is by definition unfathomable, wallowing in grief for victims and families and, after a few days, retreating into that cosmic shrug that always follows.

If today’s shooter had somehow breached not a Navy facility but the Capitol itself, randomly butchering everyone in sight, would it have made any difference?  

The President, in the White House only four miles from the shootings, cancels a speech and shakes his head over “men and women who were going to work, doing their job protecting all of us” who “know the dangers of serving abroad, but today they faced the unimaginable violence that they wouldn’t have expected here at home.”

As we move through the desolation we now know so well, won’t those with political power in Washington pause long enough to consider what all of us, they themselves included, at every moment face from a madman’s finger on the trigger of a semi-automatic weapon?

Is this the world they want to bequeath their children and grandchildren?  They should come out from under their desks and tell us.

Two to Watch for 2016: Cruz and Warren

While Barack Obama breaks all records for exclusive interviews, news about his successor is starting to stir in the background.

A new CNN poll is fascinating for what it reveals—-and doesn’t. No surprise that Hillary Clinton is favored by a whopping 65 percent of Democrats with Joe Biden way back at 10. Expectedly too, Republicans are in a gaggle with Chris Christie (17), Paul Ryan (16), Rand Paul (13), Jeb Bush (10) and Marco Rubio (9).

At this point, name recognition counts heavily, but just below those current leaders is a provocative pair: Elizabeth Warren and Ted Cruz, each at 7 percent.

Two senators who have occupied their seats for only months are poised to move up as more Americans find out who they are and what they stand for—-the most clear-cut (some would say extreme) positions on the role of government, an issue that has been dominating—-and paralyzing-- Washington politics.

Even as prospects for Democrats retaking the House next year remain slim, the ascension of Cruz and Warren may sharpen serious debate about what voters two years later, their heads cleared of Obama’s race as a distraction, want from government.

With professorial backgrounds, both could elevate the discussion above the Michele Bachman-Rick Perry duh level and offer some real bite to the overarching arguments.

Fascinating too is the prospect of the pair bringing true demographic diversity to their parties’ national tickets (after all, the 2012 race still featured three and a half white men).

Conceivably, the Democratic ticket could consist of two women with the GOP fielding a pair of Latinos. Mix or match as they may, the parties may be forced to stop searching for compromise candidates and field choices that voters can understand, think about and among whom they can express their clear preference.

In 2016, the middle of the road may be the most dangerous place for an ambitious national politician to be.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Why Can't Obama Do Better?

Less than a year ago, Americans elected a President who was clearly the better choice—-an experienced, gifted, humane man who had steered the country through a tumultuous four years.

Why is Barack Obama in such distress now? Domestically and around the world, he is in less control than ever, the agenda being driven by events and ruthless antagonists. On major issues, even his own party is not squarely behind him.

Is the nation in some existential funk that no leader could overcome, or have we somehow been swamped into a loss of priorities that has to be set straight?

The question sounds suspiciously like an election theme, but it can’t wait for 2014 or 2016 to be addressed.

For one thing, in 2013 Barack Obama seems to be wavering between the passivity that finally produced a Pyhrric victory on health care reform in 2010 and a new-found aggressive insistence on punishing Syria.

Lest we forget, the “victorious” version of Obamacare was a compromised mess that resulted from the President’s failure to tell Congress exactly what he wanted from the start the year before and fight for it, rather than settle for what he could get (and giving the Tea Party a vehicle for taking over the House).

Now on Syria we see a different Obama, drawing a red line on Assad’s use of poison gas but then deferring (sort of) to Congress on a military response and being deflected from his course by that renowned peacekeeper Vladimir Putin.

No matter which way he turns now, the President is in trouble, on the defensive, explaining himself, being seen as weak and indecisive.

As he girds himself for another bitter pointless fight with Congress on the debt ceiling and budget, is it too much to ask Barack Obama to take a step back and remember who he was in November 2008, a living example of how America can change and evolve?

Why are we spending so much of our political capital on every new insoluble crisis that can be produced by inexhaustible Middle East quagmire makers?

In his last futile speech, the President acknowledged the nation’s exhaustion with all that. For the sake of his legacy and our future, he should be stepping back to look at the whole picture and start spending his remaining time in the White House to pull us as far out of that muck as humanly possible.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Cross-Generational Love

When I was in my twenties, I had a brief crush on a sixtyish Southern woman I met at a writers’ conference. We talked for hours and I can still remember that honeyed voice saying, “Sir, you purely pleasure me.”

Later, I would now and then feel emotional connection with even older women and, as time went on, with some who were much younger. None of these was sexual, and I began to believe in cross-generational love, an affinity that spans decades of difference in the accident of birth.

All this comes to mind because Debbie Moore, my niece by marriage, is celebrating her sixtieth birthday in Vermont. Over decades I have known her, she is empathy squared: a nurse and much more by profession, a nurturer by nature.

One of a dozen children, she came to her calling early and ever since has elevated it to an unpretentious art, caring personified. Just being with her is a warming experience.

To all the Ploofs and Moores gathered tonight and especially my nephew Tom who has shared more than half her life, all happiness and a memory:

Decades ago Debbie was in Manhattan for a professional meeting and, after dinner, we were walking together talking animatedly and ran across my son’s high-school basketball coach who, on seeing a mismatched couple holding hands, quickly averted his eyes.

I was tickled both by his misapprehension and the realization that nothing could possibly have explained to him the existence of platonic cross-generational love.

But it does exist. To my joy. Happy birthday, Deb.

President McCain to Answer Putin

You get old, you forget things. It’s been only five years but John McCain is having a senior moment by arranging to answer Vladimir Putin, President to President.

Stirred up by the Russian leader’s New York Times OpEd piece, the 2008 loser has prevailed upon Pravda to publish his answer to the Kremlin commentary.

Whatever medication they have him on in that old-age home, the US Senate, they should consider doubling up. McCain’s memory lapses seem to be getting more frequent and virulent as time goes on.

Egypt, Libya, Syria, whatever, the former pilot of the Straight Talk Express Bus gets more garrulous at 77—-and more combative.

"Mr. McCain,” says the editor of Pravda, “has been an active anti-Russian politician for many years already. We have been critical of his stance on Russia and international politics in our materials, but we would be only pleased to publish a story penned by such a prominent politician as John McCain."

As John Kerry and the Russian Foreign Minister labor long hours to cook Assad’s goose in some mutually satisfactory manner, McCain will be stirring folks in Moscow with the real skinny on what red-blooded American patriots think about Putin and his gang.

Even so, his response will be late. New York Democratic Congressman Steve Israel has already penned a rebuttal article for Kommersant, a Russian magazine under the title, “An Open Letter to the People of Russia.”

Who would have thought that a new threat of World War III would be fueled by American lawmakers writing free-lance articles for Moscow publications?

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Dear Vladimir

Wonderful to hear from you after so long. We were beginning to fear Barack had offended you in some way at those interminable meetings, but it’s reassuring to know you still care.

We too remember when “we were allies...and defeated the Nazis together.” Those were the good old days, meeting up in Czechoslovakia and swapping Mickey Mouse watches for vodka.

It’s reassuring to hear you’re willing to forgive our little misunderstandings since then (that really was a dustup in Cuba!) and that you still have our best interests at heart. Too many old friends drift apart after such spats as a Berlin airlift and cold war.

We haven’t gotten together much at our old hangout, the United Nations, since Khrushchev had one too many and start pounding his shoe on the bar, but your nostalgia for “consensus” there is touching, and it’s good of you to straighten us out on how it’s not Assad in Syria using poison gas but “opposition forces, to provoke intervention by their powerful foreign patrons, who would be siding with the fundamentalists” and that “militants are preparing another attack-—this time against Israel.”

Who knew? Only a true friend would show such concern for helping us avoid making mistakes. We’ll certainly take another look at what those bumblers in the White House and CIA have been telling us before we blunder into another one of our “commonplace...interventions in internal conflicts in foreign countries.”

It’s also good to hear you have been in touch with “major political and religious leaders, including the Pope” who agree with you about our misguided missile strike plan in Syria.

The next time you talk to the Pope, give him our best. And write again soon. Don’t be such a stranger.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Losses of 9/11/01

Until 12 years ago today, we lived in another country. They did things differently there. For one, they did not keep bringing death to people halfway around the world who posed no imminent threat to us.

For another, they didn’t casually keep sending our own young men and women to be killed and maimed in such places. One Korea, one Vietnam and one Kuwait in half a century were enough to discourage such behavior.

What America lost on September 11, 2001 was more than 3000 innocent women, men and children. It lost social trust--the sense of not having to be constantly on guard against the malice of unknown people who want to hurt or kill us for no personal reason whatsoever.

Before then, we took much for granted: We could walk safely in front of cars that would stop for red lights, eat food that had passed through the hands of countless unseen people, turn over our children every day to strangers who would keep them safe and nurture them.

We still do all that and more, but we can’t board a plane, sit in a stadium, attend a midnight movie, go to church or walk a crowded street with the same security we felt before 9/11/01. We live in a nation where, as Bill Clinton put it, it’s easier to get a gun than vote.

Our public life has become meaner, coarser and, in politics, we are not the people we were before--fiercely opinionated, intensely competitive but optimistic and generous underneath it all.

This anniversary of the fall of the Twin Towers and the attack on the Pentagon will pass with ritual moments of silence for what we lost that day.

Yet the biggest loss is the memory of who we were before then.

The President's Pinprick Speech

Defensive, disappointing and demagogic are words that come to mind after Barack Obama’s appeal to a reluctant nation on Syria.

Defensive, because the President lists all the reasons against his position and ineffectually tries to destroy them.

Disappointing, because he seems unable to grasp how deep the opposition goes and that rejection of his arguments is not based on failure to understand them.

Demagogic, because his appeal to watch videos of Assad’s gas victims puts them in a special category that is hard to accept. Dead women and children will be just as dead if they are killed in an American missile strike.

To create a special category for such weapons, the President cites “the horror of the Holocaust,” omitting that Nazis herded millions of Jews into concentration camps before gassing them. And in asserting America’s “sense of common humanity” on such matters, he is speaking for the only nation on earth that ever dropped atomic bombs on civilian populations—-twice-—without warning, killing men, women and children by hundreds of thousands in Japan and dooming countless more to slow death by cancer for decades.

“Our ideals and principles, as well as our national security, are at stake in Syria,” he says, but few Americans believe that, and his media blitz of the past few days has not changed their views.

In the final minutes of his speech, he gives short shrift to the Russian effort at the UN, treating it with the skepticism it merits but not changing his stance in any material way.

To answer critics who believe that missile strikes at Assad would be ineffectual, the President claims with pride that “the United States military doesn’t do pinpricks.”

Just so. It inevitably brings death to innocents with no assurance of changing Assad’s behavior in any material way or not drawing us as deeply into Syria as we have been in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Why must we have an Obama just as determined to strike Syria as George W. Bush was to invade Iraq? In two presidential elections, Americans have shown they want no more of that.

Listening to Obama last night brought back echoes of Bush’s “axil of evil” speech. No oratorical gifts can overcome that.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Obama's "Bad Cop" Coup

For a dozen years, Americans have lived in fear of what crazy Middle East terrorists might do. In recent weeks, Barack Obama has turned the tables with seemingly irrational determination to wreak havoc on Syria.

The mild-mannered former law professor/community organizer has morphed into an Osama, bent on bombing the wicked against the wishes of world opinion.

Has the President, consciously or not, been playing the good cop-bad cop game, as the wild-eyed avenger who has to be restrained by more reasonable proponents of law and order? 

Whether or not, he is on the brink of a success no one could have imagined.

The Russian reversal at the UN has handed Obama an unforeseen opportunity to pull back from the posture of intractable avenger to the “Yes We Can” optimist of yore, converting his request of Congress from an imminent attack to provisional approval if Assad backslides on handing over his chemical weapons.

John Kerry may have muffed his good cop role by prematurely blurting that Syria faces an “unbelievably small, limited kind of effort,” but the table is set for the President to revert to reason.

Will the temporary bad cop take yes for an answer?

Monday, September 09, 2013

Can Obama Handle a Russian Flop on Syria?

History may see this as the moment when Obama and Putin went eyeball to eyeball and the other guy blinked.

Maybe so but, as the President unleashes weapons of mass persuasion with wall-to-wall TV interviews and key Democrats back him, he should recognize what any good basketball player knows is a strategic flop, suddenly stepping away from an aggressive adversary to have him called for a foul.   

World opinion is the ref here, and abrupt Russian agreement to have Syria surrender its chemical weapons to UN control already has Obama scrambling to modify his prepared pitch to call the move “a potentially positive development” and emphasize that he favors a diplomatic solution.

Such tactics date back to the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the former Soviets have not forgotten what JFK taught them, to take any opening to get the other guy off balance.

The Russian UN Ambassador is on PBS, unblinkingly backing his nation’s proposal to have Syrians give up weapons he called non-existent yesterday and reminding Americans of Colin Powell’s Pottery Barn rule on Iraq (“You break it, you own it”) on where a Syrian strike could lead.

What is waiting for President Obama as he faces the nation Tuesday night is a remarkable opportunity to extricate himself from the no-win trap he created by declaring a diplomatic victory now and putting his missile sword back in the scabbard, reserving it as a later option if the Syrians use chemical weapons again.

The ground is prepared. Harry Reid has already delayed a Senate vote on the military action, and the President has an unbelievable opportunity to relieve the nation and the world by taking the opening the Russians have handed him for whatever devious reasons of their own.

It would be a winning three-point shot at the buzzer.