Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Times Square Tradition

If you watch the countdown to the new year from Times Square via television tonight, you'll be observing a traditional ritual that began more than a century ago.

The first New Year's Eve celebration in Times Square was held on Dec. 31, 1904. It wasn't known as Times Square in those days. In 1904, it was known as Longacre Square.

I don't know if the celebration has been held every year since then. But, if it has, there may have been some conflict in New York on New Year's Eve five years later. On Dec. 31, 1909, Manhattan Bridge opened.

Of course, I suppose the opening of the bridge was held during daylight hours — presumably leaving plenty of time to get to Longacre Square or wherever one planned to be at midnight 99 years ago.

Some important people began their lives on New Year's Eve.
  • Henri Matisse (1869)

  • George C. Marshall (1880)

  • Simon Wiesenthal (1908)

  • Odetta (1930)

  • Anthony Hopkins (1937)

  • Ben Kingsley (1943)
And legendary country singer Hank Williams Sr. died on New Year's Eve 1952. He was 29.

End of the Old Year, Start of the New

The mind is torn as 2008 draws to a close.

What should be our resolutions as the new year begins? And which ones must be dealt with immediately? There is no consensus.

Our nation faces many challenges — how to put America back to work, how to reduce our dependence on foreign oil, how to make health care affordable for every American.

Columnists are far from being in agreement over which issue requires the new government's most urgent attention. And everyone makes a good case. It can be overwhelming. Yes, there are many things that have been neglected and need attention. Which one must be addressed first?

It may have to be enough to leave it up to common sense — and hope the decision makers have plenty of it.

On an individual level, most people, as David Harsanyi writes in the Denver Post, will "embark on the futile task of pledging to eliminate one toxic activity or another from their lives" as their resolutions.

Whether that's a good thing or a bad thing depends on which "activity" is being eliminated and how much toxicity it causes. Eliminating any excessive behavior probably is something to be desired. And making a general pledge to act in moderation is probably a good rule to live by.

On the emotional level, we think of those who saw the arrival of '08 but did not make it to the start of '09. I thought of this yesterday as I was watching a video tribute on Turner Classic Movies to those in the film industry who died in 2008.

Be they friends, relatives or movie stars, they influenced our lives, and their absence will be felt, particularly in the new year when the loss is still fresh.

I guess there is no particular resolution you can make because someone important in your life has passed away — except to resolve to remember the life lessons that person taught you.

The new year brings all kinds of uncertainty. There are no guarantees for anyone.

And yet, almost all of us start the year by taking an automatic leap of faith — the assumption that we'll all be here to make resolutions on the final day of 2009.

Of course, we all won't make it to the end of the year. Inevitably, some will pass away before the year is over. But, as long as there is life, it is said, there is hope.

With that spirit of optimism, perhaps we'll succeed in achieving the big goals.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Give Him a Chance


"Allies describe Burris — the first black politician to win statewide office in Illinois — as a careful leader whose banking background made him more comfortable crunching numbers than delivering charismatic speeches from a lectern."

USA Today


In spite of the problems he's been having lately, Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich went ahead and named his choice to replace Barack Obama in the Senate — attorney Roland Burris, the first black to win statewide office in Illinois.

But Burris may be denied the seat, according to Politico.com, which is reporting that Majority Leader Harry Reid will not seat Burris.

According to a statement from Reid, "There is much work to do and a lot at stake. It is thus critical that Illinois and every other state have two seated Senators without delay."

But Reid suggests that the fastest way for Illinois to fill the vacancy to everyone's satisfaction is for Blagojevich to resign and permit "his successor [to] appoint someone who we will seat."

Blagojevich has indicated repeatedly that he will not resign. And impeachment can take a long time. Blagojevich and his attorneys seem determined to settle in for a protracted battle, to fight every charge and contest every witness.

If Illinois has to wait until the matter is resolved before the Senate seat is filled, the voters might as well be prepared to wait until after the next election before they have two senators again.

There are only two years left on the term. Whoever occupies the seat, the voters will have their say in 2010.

Give him a chance.

The Eisenhower Analogy

We've all heard the comparisons of Barack Obama to Abraham Lincoln.

Michael Barone, one of the foremost political scientists in America, sees similarities between Obama and another Republican president — Dwight Eisenhower.

I must admit that it's hard to argue with his logic.

Especially his conclusion, which is as follows: Half a century ago, "many Republicans grumbled that Ike did little to help his party and said, privately, that he was selfish," writes Barone.

"Eisenhower, I suspect, regarded himself as a unique national figure and believed that maximizing his popularity far beyond his party's was in the national interest. Out there in Hawaii, Obama may feel the same way."

People with whom I've discussed Obama's decisions since the election tend to express approval of his Cabinet choices and his policy announcements.

If he is following Ike's lead (even if he's unaware that he's doing so), it may not be the worst thing he can do — from a personal perspective. But he stands to lose some crucial allies in Congress.

Eisenhower's presidency was a little before my time, but, even so, based on what I've read, Barone's assessment is on target.
  • Barone correctly points out, for example, that Obama didn't make much of an effort for his fellow Democrats during the campaign and, as a result, may have given many Democratic politicians the impression that "Obama doesn't much care to campaign for anybody but himself."

    Likewise, Eisenhower didn't make much of an effort for other Republicans and was regarded as aloof by many of the people in his party.

  • Obama first came to the attention of the American public in 2004, when he was asked to give the keynote address at the Democratic national convention that nominated John Kerry for president. The exposure helped Obama in his race that fall for the Senate seat from Illinois.

    The speech did not, as most keynote addresses do, draw sharp distinctions between the parties. Instead, as Barone writes, "[i]t was a speech that did a lot for Barack Obama and very little for the Democratic nominee."

    Then, as Barone points out, Kerry expressed an interest in being secretary of state — and may have had a reasonable hope of being appointed, in appreciation for giving a "decisive boost" to Obama's career — but was ignored by the president-elect.

  • While the selection of Rick Warren to give the invocation at the inauguration has been hailed — Barone himself calls it a "masterstroke" for being a reassuring gesture to evangelical Christians — that choice, Barone acknowledges, "was also felt, predictably, as a slap in the face by those advocates of gay rights and same-sex marriage who want to ostracize those who, like Warren, have publicly disagreed with them."
It's a reasonable analogy.

But, if Obama isn't actively involved in Democratic politics during the midterm elections — worse, if he makes some mistakes and his popularity declines between now and 2010 (and new presidents usually do make mistakes) — with a recession and a two-front war raging, he may experience the downside of the aloof approach, and Republicans may feel they're the beneficiaries of gifts from heaven.

The political legacy of the Eisenhower presidency is that, while Ike's popularity steadily increased through two terms in the White House, his party lost control of the Congress during the midterm elections of 1954 — and the GOP spent the next four decades trying to get it back.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Blogger Suggests 'Caretaker' for Clinton's Seat


Caroline Kennedy and her father
aboard the "Honey Fitz" in August 1963.


In recent days and weeks, some observers have been fretting about Caroline Kennedy's lack of experience that would serve as her qualification to serve in the U.S. Senate.

For some, the idea of appointing a "caretaker" to serve until a special election can be held in 2010 has merit. They believe the best short-term approach is to appoint someone who will promise not to run in two years and let the voters choose from the candidates who announce for the post — possibly including Kennedy.

Robert Stein of the Connecting.The.Dots blog thinks he has a solution.

New York Gov. David Paterson, he writes, should appoint a "caretaker" and Stein has a recommendation that, on the surface, seems reasonable — former Gov. Mario Cuomo.

I can't argue with Stein's characterization of Cuomo — "a wise, experienced, respected politician who knows New York State better than any other."

But, given the fact that Cuomo's son is frequently mentioned as a prospect for the seat, wouldn't the appointment of his father be considered almost the same kind of nepotism that is apparently being applied to the Senate vacancy in Delaware, where an aide to Vice President-elect Joe Biden is serving as the caretaker for Biden's seat until Biden's son completes his tour of duty in Iraq?

If Andrew Cuomo did, indeed, seek the seat in 2010, Mario Cuomo would hardly be a neutral observer.

Of course, it would be foolish to ignore the possibility that, in such a scenario, Paterson might be trying to aid his own political cause by, conceivably, making it easier for Andrew Cuomo to run for the Senate.

Andrew Cuomo has, as Stein observes, been mentioned as a possible challenger to Paterson for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. He might be expected to re-direct his efforts if his father is appointed to the Senate seat.

I agree with the things Stein says about Mario Cuomo. But, if Paterson is going to pick someone to be a caretaker until 2010, it should be someone with no ties to any of the people who have been mentioned as candidates in the special election.

Meanwhile, the Boston Globe is reporting that another survey, this one conducted by CNN/Opinion Research, finds that a majority of Americans believe Kennedy is qualified to be a senator.

During the weekend, I reported here that Rasmussen Reports found that 40% of respondents in a national survey felt Kennedy was qualified.

Again, I have to say the same thing I said during the weekend.

This is an issue for people in New York. It is their Senate seat. It is not the business of anyone else.

Throughout American history, voters in various states have been given the option of choosing someone for the Senate who took an unconventional path to that office. Most senators have been lawyers — like Kennedy — but others have arrived in the Senate with different occupational backgrounds. Most, though, have had more political experience than Kennedy.

But I think it would be a mistake to disqualify her simply because she has never held political office before. If Paterson thinks she is the best person to be senator at this time, he should appoint her.

Members of both the House and Senate have come from all walks of life — doctors, priests, teachers, businessmen, farmers, athletes and entertainers. The main thing that is necessary is for the voters to be confident in the advocacy skills of that person.

We've even seen that on the presidential level.

In the last century alone, we've had the following presidents who were not lawyers:
  • George W. Bush was a businessman.
  • George H.W. Bush was a businessman.
  • Ronald Reagan was an actor.
  • Jimmy Carter was a farmer.
  • Lyndon Johnson was a teacher.
  • Dwight Eisenhower was a soldier.
  • Harry Truman was a businessman.
  • Herbert Hoover was an engineer.
  • Warren Harding was a newspaper publisher.
  • Woodrow Wilson was a teacher.
If Caroline Kennedy is appointed to replace Hillary Clinton, the decision will be in the voters' hands soon enough.

Just as it was up to the voters of California in 1964 — and again in 1970 — to decide whether they wanted to be represented in the Senate by a song-and-dance man (George Murphy).

Just as it was up to the voters of Minnesota this year whether they wanted to be represented in the Senate by a comedian (that race remains unresolved at this point, but the comedian, Al Franken, holds a narrow lead in the recount).

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Today's History Lesson


"The interval between the decay of the old and the formation and establishment of the new constitutes a period of transition which must always necessarily be one of uncertainty, confusion, error, and wild and fierce fanaticism."

John C. Calhoun
(1782-1850)


Most people seem to be under the mistaken impression that, 35 years ago, Spiro Agnew was the first vice president in American history to resign.

But that's not true.

On this date in 1832, John C. Calhoun (pictured at right) became the first vice president to resign.

But the difference between Calhoun and Agnew was simple.

Agnew resigned while under investigation for extortion, tax fraud, bribery and conspiracy — he entered a plea of nolo contendre or "no contest" to those charges in court after resigning.

To use modern jargon, the case against Agnew was a "slam dunk."

Calhoun gave up the vice presidency to take a seat in the Senate.

Both men occupy unique roles in history — aside from resigning as vice president.

Agnew (pictured at left) was the first Greek-American — and still the only one — to be vice president.

Calhoun was the first vice president who was born a U.S. citizen. The six men who served as vice president before Calhoun were all born before the Revolutionary War.

He wasn't the first vice president to serve under two different presidents (John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson), but he is still the last one to do so, nearly 180 years after his resignation.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Caroline's Commitment


Caroline and John F. Kennedy Jr. dance
in the Oval Office while President Kennedy claps.


Yesterday, Ben Smith reported, at Politico.com, that Caroline Kennedy doesn't plan to seek the Senate seat from New York in 2010 if she is not appointed to replace Hillary Clinton.

Kennedy, who acknowledged (to no one's surprise) that she is a lifelong Democrat, said that, if she is not appointed, "I would support the person that [Gov. David Paterson] does select."

The unspoken assumptions are, of course, that
  • a Democrat will be appointed to replace Clinton — which is a reasonable assumption, since both Paterson and Clinton are Democrats — and

  • if Kennedy is not appointed to replace Clinton, the person who is appointed will not do something that will offend Democrats and/or the public at large — like, for example, the previous governor of New York did — before the special election in 2010.
In other words, Kennedy is saying she would be loyal to her party if she is not appointed to the Senate.

But the Daily Kos dismisses her comment by saying "So much for her commitment to democracy." Kennedy, suggests the Daily Kos, doesn't want the seat if she has to work for it, and politics in New York is run by a political machine. Thus, "if Kennedy does get that appointment," writes the Daily Kos, "it's ludicrous to think that she can be primaried out of it in 2010 if New York Democrats aren't happy with the selection."

Then, indulging in some fantasy, the Daily Kos elaborates by expressing a desire to see Kennedy, Andrew Cuomo "and a dark horse candidate or two" running in 2010 for a seat that, apparently, has been filled by a caretaker who has pledged not to run in the special election.

I'm disappointed in the Daily Kos, which, in my experience, frequently posts articles that are reasonable and logical.

Not this time.

Of course, Kennedy is a Democrat — like everyone else in her famous family. As her statement suggests, she is a loyal Democrat. And, since she has no reason to assume that anyone who would be appointed to replace Clinton in the Senate will do anything to offend the members of her party or cast many votes that are at odds with her party's philosophy, she has no reason to challenge that incumbent in 2010.

She was not asked what she would do if the appointee turned out to be a disappointment to the governor and many of New York's Democrats. (That's an entirely different question — and a hypothetical one, at that.)

Nor was she asked if she would run for the office in 2010 if, as has been speculated, the governor will appoint a temporary caretaker and let the voters make the decision in the next election cycle.

If, at this stage, she suggested that she might run against the person who was appointed (thereby sowing the seeds of discontent before the appointee has even been named), that — to me — would be evidence of an absence of respect for either the office or the voters — and an indication that she is self-centered, not selfless.

Instead, she generously said that she will support the governor's choice. She trusts him to choose someone who can do more than keep the seat warm for a couple of years. She will not divide the electorate to further her own political ambitions — if she has any.

The work that must be done to repair the economy is urgent for New Yorkers and all Americans. Kennedy does not want to be represented in the Senate by a caretaker. She wants a senator who will be an advocate for her state. And she encourages unity in a common cause.

New York is indisputably linked to the national and global economies. It must have two senators who can speak on behalf of the tens of thousands of New Yorkers whose livelihoods are dependent upon the health of New York City's financial district.

Perhaps Kennedy's remarks were influenced, to a certain degree, by the recent Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey that indicated that two-thirds of U.S. voters have a favorable opinion of her, but less than 40% think she is qualified to be a senator.

Personally, I think a national survey on this subject is not appropriate.

The only people who should be questioned are New Yorkers. It is their Senate seat. And if Caroline Kennedy is appointed to fill it, New Yorkers will have the opportunity to keep her there or select a replacement soon enough.

But I think Kennedy's comments clearly demonstrate her commitment to freedom — as well as democracy.

The Verdict of History


Iranians staged a demonstration after prayers Friday.


With less than a month to go until the end of his presidency, it is appropriate to wonder where George W. Bush will stand among the rest of the presidents.

A verdict — of sorts — apparently has already been rendered. When the Iraqi journalist threw his shoes at Bush during the president's recent farewell visit to the country he ordered U.S. troops to invade five years ago, that journalist was merely acting out the greatest insult in the Arab world, which is to slap your shoe against somebody.

It's debatable whether Bush knew what it meant. His reaction was to shrug it off.

It's not so easy to shrug off what public opinion surveys have been saying for a long time.

Bush's most recent approval ratings, according to PollingReport.com, are 24% in the CBS News poll, 27% in the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, 29% in the USA Today/Gallup Poll, 30% in the ABC News/Washington Post poll and 30% in the FOX News/Opinion Dynamics poll.

Significantly, these are not his lowest readings ever. That distinction belongs to October of this year, when his approval numbers fell to the mid- and low 20s following the economic meltdown. He seems to have bounced back slightly since then.

Nearly three years ago, in April 2006, historian Sean Wilentz wrote an assessment of the Bush presidency, then barely into the second year of its second term, in Rolling Stone. In hindsight, it seems almost prescient.

"Bush's presidency appears headed for colossal historical disgrace," Wilentz wrote. "Barring a cataclysmic event on the order of the terrorist attacks of September 11th … there seems to be little the administration can do to avoid being ranked on the lowest tier of U.S. presidents."

And that, Wilentz warned, was a "best-case scenario."

"Many historians are now wondering whether Bush, in fact, will be remembered as the very worst president in all of American history," Wilentz wrote.

Less than a year later — after Democrats had seized control of both houses of Congress for the first time since the mid-1990s — journalist Nicholas von Hoffman examined the question for The Nation.

"How do you judge?" he asked thoughtfully. His article was critical — and rightfully so — of the presidents who served in the decades leading up to the Civil War — especially Abraham Lincoln's immediate predecessor, James Buchanan, who, "[a]side from being a dull, unimaginative, dray horse of a politician, he was the president whose cowardice in handling the South and slavery ended the remotest possibility that the United States would be spared the horrors of the Civil War."

But the 20th century's presidents were not given a pass.

"Ever since the atom bomb was dropped," he observed, "we've had a whole string of bozos who cannot pronounce the word 'nuclear.' How much should that count against them?"

Herbert Hoover, he insisted, was the "unluckiest president," and "it's still too early to tell" about Richard Nixon.

As for Bush, von Hoffman wrote, it's also too early to tell. "One of the criteria for being worst is how much lasting damage the president did," he wrote. "Buchanan, for instance, did more than words can convey. With Bush II the reckoning is yet to be made."

In April of this year, after John McCain had secured the nomination of Bush's party, Scott Horton of Harper's Magazine observed that a majority of historians surveyed by George Mason University's History News Network were ready to proclaim him the "worst ever" president.

This, Horton wrote, was a "dramatic deterioration" for Bush. The president "wasn't viewed in the most positive terms" in the spring of 2004, when he was unable, in response to a question at a press conference, to identify a mistake he had made in his first term, "but there was a consensus that he wasn't the 'worst of the worst' either."

Since that time, Horton wrote, "Bush has established himself as the torture president, the basis for his invasion of Iraq has been exposed as a fraud, the Iraq War itself has gone disastrously, the nation's network of alliances has faded, and the economy has gone into a tailspin — not to mention the bungled handling of relief for victims of hurricane Katrina."

As a matter of fact, I have often wondered what Bush's approval ratings might have looked like if his own father and his predecessor had not teamed up to raise relief funds for the victims of both Katrina and the 2004 tsunami.

How much worse could things have been following both disasters if those two former presidents had not become involved?

In the aftermath of one of the worst holiday retail sales periods in decades, one can only wonder how much lower Bush's ratings can fall before he leaves the White House.

But a sure sign that he is rapidly becoming irrelevant is the proliferation of web-based games inspired by the shoe-throwing incident. This holiday season, they seem to have replaced the Christmas-oriented bowling games and similar seasonal activities that circulate on the web.
  • Sock and Awe! is a nice play on the phrase that was associated with the invasion of Iraq.
  • Can YOU throw a shoe at Bush? is a pleasant diversion. Bush keeps moving and ducking, so you won't hit him every time. And the graphic is kind of cheesy. Most players will get their fill of this game in no time.
  • Shoe Bush Worldwide isn't so much a game as it is therapy for all the frustrated Bush haters. It might provide some satisfaction — as Bush gets more and more bruised each time he's hit with a shoe.
  • Kast En Sko På Bush, which apparently is a Norwegian site, is about the right angle and acceleration to throw a shoe and make a direct hit. If you were a physics major in college, you can probably figure this out quickly — and move on to something more challenging.
  • I'm not sure where the Bush Shoe Throwing Game originates, but, although it seems fairly simple, I give it a certain amount of credit for using what seems to be an authentic screen capture from the actual event in Iraq.
  • Flying babush invites visitors to play the role of Bush and try to duck flying shoes as long as possible. The more sadistic visitors will put Bush in one spot and leave him there to get pelted by shoes.
  • There are other games in which the player assumes the role of Bush, some better than others. Returning to games in which visitors can be the shoe thrower instead of the shoe dodger, GamePro's Hit Bush With Shoe gives players additional time with each successful strike.
I also wonder how much Bush's failure — or, in the view of his supporters, his perceived failure — may influence the next administration.

USA Today reported this week that, by a very wide margin, Barack Obama is the man who is admired most by Americans.

That can mean an extended "honeymoon" with Congress — or an impatient public.

If Obama is dealing with an impatient public, that may mean a short honeymoon — and lots of pressure to accomplish something quickly.

Friday, December 26, 2008

The Shifting Sands in the Middle East

DEBKAfile says its military sources are reporting that "some 20,000 troops of Pakistan's 14th Division are said to have been diverted from the Waziristan border region with Afghanistan to the Line of Control in Kashmir and the international border with India."

This poses a problem for the incoming Obama administration because, as DEBKAfile reports, it represents "a loss of one-fifth of the total Pakistani force fighting the Taliban and al Qaeda."

Someone is going to have to pick up the slack if the Taliban are to be kept from re-taking control of Afghanistan and making it the sanctuary for al Qaeda that it was before the 2001 terrorist attacks.

Once again, I urge Obama to re-deploy troops from Iraq to Afghanistan so the important work that has been done there in the last seven years will not be undone because of increasing tensions between Pakistan and India.

And I urge Hillary Clinton, as the incoming secretary of state, to get involved immediately to prevent hostilities between Pakistan and India. Such hostilities would almost certainly result in the use of nuclear weapons by one or even both.

And such an exchange is the last thing the world needs.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

So This Is Christmas

On this Christmas morning, family and friends of three of the people who were involved in Monday's rush-hour shootings in Dallas are grieving their losses.

As you may have heard, the alleged perpetrator died last night of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to his head. Two people were killed in the shootings. A third was injured.

I find myself wondering if all this could have been avoided.

It's the same sort of helpless feeling I've had when I've heard the news about shooting rampages at schools or shopping malls or restaurants or office buildings. Inevitably, it seems, someone steps forward and mentions red flags that should have been heeded in the past.

You know, something like this — "He was never the same after he came back from [Vietnam/the Persian Gulf/a similarly traumatic event elsewhere]."

Which, inevitably, makes me think, "That would have been a good time to tell somebody, wouldn't it?"

I'm not talking about the people who get accused of serial homicides, and then the people who have known them most of their lives say, "He was always such a good boy." Those people, the Ted Bundys of the world, always seem to live lives of divided personalities. They seem to be born that way. No single event transforms them.

I'm talking about the people who are transformed by a traumatic event. Such an event always seems to be followed by a series of warning signs that things have taken a turn toward the tragic.

Based on a story in the Dallas Morning News, the alleged shooter, a former Utah state trooper, became addicted to painkillers following an unspecified "on-duty accident."

Whatever the nature of the "accident," apparently it led to problems on the job and the man resigned in May.

He reportedly was excited by a "job opportunity" in Texas and moved his family here, but few other details have emerged, except that, on the day of the shootings, it appears that the man may have been aware that he was being sought in connection with a couple of crimes — the theft of a woman's purse on Dec. 17 and the later use of her credit cards (which apparently was photographed by a surveillance camera), and another purse snatching earlier on Monday.

This may have triggered some or all of the tragic events that unfolded along a north Dallas freeway. Details are decidedly sketchy at this point. And, while most homicides have their poignant, even ironic, aspects, this case seems to reverberate with them.

I don't know if the man had any other problems since he and his family moved here about six or seven months ago, but his problems in Utah appeared to include abuse of alcohol and prescription medicine, driving under the influence and threatening suicide. I've also heard reports that he was suspected of stealing prescription drugs from the office of his father-in-law, a dentist.

He leaves behind a widow and five children to mourn his passing — and ponder their future in a strange land.

One of the people he killed on Monday was a truck driver who was planning to park his truck at the airport and fly home to be with his wife, daughter and stepson in Kentucky. Instead of spending the holiday with him, they will be preparing for his funeral.

For whatever comfort it may bring his survivors, Dallas police and witnesses have said the man was a hero for managing to bring his rig to a safe stop before he died. As someone who has driven on that freeway during rush hour many times, I can only imagine how difficult that must have been — or how many people were spared serious injury by his selfless act.

The family of a young man from the Dallas area will be preparing for his funeral this holiday as well. Apparently, he loved to work on his '93 Nissan, which he happened to be driving when he was shot. He was single, but it has been said that his Christmas plans included asking his girlfriend to marry him.

Perhaps, instead, she is participating in his funeral.

These were human tragedies — even the loss of the alleged shooter who appears to have undergone a radical transformation since suffering his injury. His friends and colleagues in Utah described a dedicated public servant whose life had been changed.

"This is a huge shock," a former colleague told the Dallas Morning News.

"I want people to know this is not who he is," a former neighbor told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "Something has happened to change him because he's not that kind of a person at all."

I'd like to get all the details before reaching a conclusion, but I have to wonder if the pain and suffering that has been inflicted on the friends and relatives of these three people could have been avoided.

Were any efforts made by the state of Utah to provide counseling or therapy for a man who appears to have been injured in an on-duty accident?

Or did the state sweep his problems under the rug and give him the green light to move to another state, where an exciting "job opportunity" awaited him — knowing all the time that his problems had not been resolved?

Given his background as a state trooper, it's not unreasonable to suggest that his "job opportunity" involved work in security — where he may have been responsible for the safety of many people and the security of their possessions.

If evidence exists that anyone in a position of authority in Utah knew that the man was a ticking time bomb and nevertheless did nothing to prevent him from moving to another state, that person should be held criminally responsible for what has happened here.

And it should serve as a warning to everyone else.

Treasure every minute you have with the people you love. You never know when they will be taken from you.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Forty Years Ago


"Earthrise," as seen by astronaut William Anders
on Christmas Eve in 1968.


Today is Christmas Eve.

Christmas Eve always seems to be a significant day, but it was especially so in 1968.

To put it bluntly, 1968 was a grim year. That December marked the end of a year of enormous upheaval in America and the world. The year began with the Tet offensive that convinced millions of Americans that the war in Vietnam could not be won. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy had been assassinated earlier in the year.

When the Democrats met for their national convention that summer, the proceedings were marred by riots in the streets. Czechoslovakia was invaded by the Soviet Union. A three-way race for the presidency went down to the wire that November.

Then, 40 years ago, Apollo 8 became the first manned voyage to orbit the moon. On Christmas Eve of 1968, as the command module orbited the moon, astronaut William Anders took the photo that became known as "Earthrise" because it showed the earth as it appeared to rise above the surface of the moon.

In a Christmas Eve broadcast from space, the crew members took turns reading the first 10 verses from the Book of Genesis. At that time, it was the most-watched TV program in history.

Mission Commander Frank Borman ended the broadcast by saying, "And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, and a Merry Christmas to all of you, all of you on the good earth."

After all that had happened in 1968, the combination of Christmas with Apollo 8 brought the year to an end on a positive note. The feeling was summed up by a telegram that was sent to the crew after the mission: "Thank you, Apollo 8," it said. "You saved 1968."

And when Borman met Pope Paul VI, he was told, "I have spent my entire life trying to say to the world what you did on Christmas Eve."

All three crew members from Apollo 8 are still alive — Borman, Anders and Jim Lovell (who commanded the ill-fated Apollo 13 a little more than a year later) — and they've been reunited on anniversaries of their flight to reminisce about it.

My brother was not quite 6 years old at the time and probably has no memory of it, but I recall how it was the topic of conversation among the adults in my world on Christmas and for days after — how the mission seemed to give everyone a psychological lift after a long and difficult year.

With the problems facing our nation today — with holiday sales at their worst level in 40 years and unemployment filings at a 26-year high — it's too bad there isn't an Apollo 8 to end 2008 on an upbeat note.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Peace on Earth, Goodwill to Men ...

It hasn't been a particularly good week for those who have to travel to be with loved ones during the holiday.

And it's only Tuesday. I'm no expert on travel patterns, but I would expect there to be many, many travelers at airports and at other public transportation venues tomorrow — on Christmas Eve.

A winter storm over the weekend made for some picturesque TV images from the football game in Seattle. But it was no holiday for travelers stranded at the Sea-Tac Airport, who were stuck in the airport for a few days. More snow is expected.

In fact, the way the weather is rearranging everyone's travel plans, it's beginning to look a lot like "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" out there.

In Denver, details are emerging about what caused a Continental Airlines flight to crash and catch fire during takeoff on Saturday.

But you didn't have to be traveling by air to run into problems in recent days.

Last evening, during rush hour, there were four separate shootings in a matter of minutes along a congested freeway here in Dallas.

According to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, police are trying to establish whether those shootings, which left two people dead, are connected in any way to a man who shot himself in an SUV a few hours later when approached by a SWAT team.

The man reportedly had been accused of robbery and burglary in a nearby community.

I'm skeptical about the vehicle. The one described in the shootings was a light-colored truck. The vehicle in which the man shot himself (he's in critical condition, at last report) is a dark SUV. If the suspect is indeed the one who was responsible for the rush-hour shootings, either he switched vehicles or witnesses of at least two of the shootings were mistaken.

Well, here's hoping that, if you aren't already where you plan to be on Christmas, the weather cooperates during your journey.

And, if you're traveling by ground, here's hoping that no one who is on the road at the same time you are has a gun or the slightest desire to use it.

May you reach your destination — safe and sound.

Merry Christmas to all.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Future Shock

In my life, I've often wondered if, during times of economic distress, comedians feel torn.

Do they vote for a candidate because he/she will be good for their country? Or do they pick a candidate because he/she will be good for their business?

On the eve of a new presidential administration, I wonder if there are some Republican politicians who feel somewhat the same way.

If the new administration's policies to battle the recession are successful, a lot of people can be spared a lot of pain. But that could also mean a real windfall of good will and support at the ballot box for the majority party in 2010.

For Republicans, the year 2012, when Democrats must defend the White House and 24 of 33 Senate seats, is the proverbial pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. But the storm isn't over yet. "Republicans first have to get past the 2010 races that, at first glance, would appear to put the GOP at a disadvantage for a third straight cycle," say Charlie Cook and Jennifer Duffy in the National Journal.

And, after taking a beating in the elections of 2006 and 2008, the Republicans won't be anxious for a three-peat.

But that just might be the alternative.

Cook and Duffy observe that, because of the gains Republicans enjoyed earlier in this decade, they will go into the 2010 Senate elections with more seats to defend than the Democrats.

Republicans hold 19 seats that will be up for election in 2010. Democrats hold 15. However, two of those Democrats will be appointees, chosen to replace Barack Obama and Interior Secretary-designate Ken Salazar for the last two years of their terms. Those are the seats that are up in this phase of the naturally recurring election cycle.

There also will be special elections for the remainder of Hillary Clinton's and Joe Biden's terms, which will be filled for the next two years by appointees. Thus, the Democrats will have 17 seats to defend in 2010, and four will be held by appointees.

"Ultimately, not all of the appointed senators will find themselves in competitive races, but these 17 seats are all at more risk than they were a month ago," Cook and Duffy write. "With potential retirements still unknown, one other very vulnerable Democratic seat is that held by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, whose poll numbers are somewhat anemic."

If Barack Obama and the Democrats can preside over a clearly recovering economy, they will have a real opportunity to claim the "veto-proof majority" that just barely slipped through their fingers this time.

Two Republican incumbents that I know of — Florida's Mel Martinez and Kansas' Sam Brownback — have announced that they will not seek re-election. Republicans probably can expect to retain Brownback's seat, but Martinez's may be different.

Cook and Duffy agree that Florida is vulnerable. They also suggest that Republican seats in Kentucky and Louisiana are in "immediate danger." And, they write, GOP senators in Missouri, New Hampshire, Ohio and Pennsylvania "could face difficult races if Democrats recruit the right challengers."

However, numbers from the last 10 midterm elections (going back to 1970) indicate an average net loss of 2.7 seats for the party in power, they point out.

"[I]t's hard to think that national dynamics won't be at work, one way or another," they write. "New presidents often make missteps, and their honeymoons can end quickly. If that happens this time, a few of the vulnerable Republican seats would likely become less so, and a few of the Democratic seats that appear relatively safe would come into play.

"On the other hand, if Republicans are still 8 or 9 points behind in party affiliation, if their 'brand' hasn't been repaired, and if they are still facing a competence gap — an attribute they used to own — this could be yet another very painful cycle for them."

Saturday, December 20, 2008

How Best to Honor Lincoln?


"When a Lincoln-like man arises, let us recognize and fitly honor him. There could be no poorer way of honoring the memory of Lincoln than to assume, as we sometimes do, that the race of Lincolns has perished from the earth, and that we shall never look upon his like again. One way to ensure the passing of the Lincolns is to assume that another Lincoln can nevermore arise. Would we find Lincoln today, we must not seek him in the guise of a rail-splitter, nor as a wielder of the backwoodsman's axe, but as a mighty smiter of wrong in high places and low."

Stephen Wise
Founder/rabbi of the Free Synagogue of New York City
Founder, Zionist Organization of America
Address to Lincoln Centennial Association, Springfield, Ill., Feb. 12, 1914


In less than two months, I presume Barack Obama, as the newly inaugurated president, will return to his home state of Illinois to participate in the ceremonies recognizing the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln's birth.

(Actually, although Lincoln is associated with Illinois, which is the state where he spent most of his adult life, he was born in Kentucky — so, while Illinois is, justifiably, honoring Lincoln on his 200th birthday, it should come as no surprise to anyone that Kentucky has celebratory plans of its own.

(Of course, that's something Obama and Lincoln have in common. They were born and raised elsewhere, then moved to Illinois as adults.)

Comparisons between Obama and Lincoln have been made by many — and, certainly, I would agree that there are several things the two men have in common, even though Lincoln's life ended nearly a century before Obama's began.

But is this the Second Coming? I don't know, but I'd like to see what Obama does once he's in office before anyone starts designing monuments or chiseling a fifth face on Mount Rushmore.

I would also caution those who are getting carried away with the historic implications of the inauguration — which is a month from today — that similar experiences do not produce similar results. Obama will have many pressing matters to resolve after he has taken the oath of office. How he responds to these crises will determine his place in the history books — not his resemblance (whether real or imagined) to any previous president.

Many historians, for example, have puzzled over the influence that a childhood of poverty had on two political adversaries, Hubert Humphrey and Richard Nixon.

In Humphrey, it has been observed, being raised in poverty bred a generosity of spirit that motivated him to fight against the root causes of poverty on behalf of his fellow man. In Nixon, a background of poverty merely encouraged a selfishness that motivated him to do whatever was necessary to avoid being poor again.

Of course, Obama may well be regarded as a great president when his administration is over. Or he may be considered a failure. Whichever it turns out to be, there's no doubt that Obama will enter the presidency with many things in common with Lincoln besides an Illinois address:
  • Both, for example, were lawyers — although Obama's experience was quite different from Lincoln's. Lincoln was self-taught, while Obama was educated at Harvard Law School.

  • Both served in the Illinois state legislature — although, again, their experiences were different. Obama was in the state Senate; Lincoln was in the state House.

  • Both came up short in bids for seats in the U.S. Congress. Obama was beaten when he challenged Democratic Rep. Bobby Rush in Illinois' First District in 2000. Lincoln lost his bid for the U.S. Senate in 1858.

  • Both opposed wars in which America invaded foreign countries. Obama, of course, opposed the Iraq War before he ran for the U.S. Senate. Lincoln opposed the Mexican-American War, which was justified by its supporters based on the claim that Mexico had attacked Americans on American soil. Lincoln, who was serving in the House, believed the attack occurred in Mexico and insisted that President Polk "show me the spot!" where American blood was spilled before he would be persuaded to support the war.

  • It has been observed that, while candidates for the U.S. Senate, both men delivered famous speeches that propelled their eventual candidacies for the presidency. Obama gave the keynote address to the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Lincoln's "House Divided" speech is considered by historians to be one of his finest.

  • Both won their parties' presidential nominations by overcoming the establishment's choice, in both cases a lawyer from New York who was widely expected to win the nomination.

    In yet another ironic twist, both Obama and Lincoln, after winning the presidency, selected their former rivals (Hillary Clinton in Obama's case, William Seward in Lincoln's) to be secretary of state.
Well, I've heard other "common traits" mentioned that really just strike me as coincidental — like, for example, the "fact" that March 4 was important to both men.

Why was March 4 so important? Well, in Lincoln's day, presidents were sworn in on March 4. And, as it turned out, March 4 this year was on a Tuesday, and it was a primary election day, one of several that were labeled "make or break" for Clinton.

It wasn't a huge primary day, a "Super Tuesday" or "Tsunami Tuesday" — but four states, including Texas and Ohio, held primaries that day. Presumably, March 4 was the date Clinton was going to step aside, clearing the way for Obama to glide to the nomination.

That is not the way it worked out. Clinton won three of the four state primaries and remained in the race for another three months. Consequently, the March 4 connection seems like a bit of a stretch to me.

If we want to honor Lincoln's memory, there's no shortage of existing monuments to our 16th president. Streets, schools, parks, bridges, office buildings, counties, a tunnel, even a state capital bear his name.

And, while it has no real buying power by itself anymore, the penny bears his picture. (For that matter, so does the $5 bill. The floor is open for arguments on whether that has lost its buying power as well.)

Nearly 150 years after his death, Lincoln is remembered as one of America's great presidents. He is one of only four men to have a likeness of his face carved into a mountainside.

Obama's contemporaries are in no position to assess him yet. History will judge his performance as president. Perhaps future generations, in the year 2161, will feel inclined to mark the 200th anniversary of Obama's birth. Whether that observance will be more than the bicentennial of the birth of America's first black president will depend on the decisions Obama makes now — and in the near future.

In that near future, the 200th anniversary of Lincoln's birth will be a significant day — but, in truth, it has no more importance in the context of current events than the nation's bicentennial had in the summer of 1976. It is merely a day. It is appropriate that we mark the occasion, if only to take note of how far we've come and how far we still must go, but it is still merely a day.

And we should remember Rabbi Wise's words, spoken on the 105th anniversary of Lincoln's birth.

"We dwell in times of great perplexity and are beset by far-reaching problems of social, industrial and political import," Wise said. "We shall not greatly err if upon every occasion we consult the genius of Abraham Lincoln."

Lincoln, he said, "remains the standard by which to measure men. His views are not binding upon us, but his point of view will always be our inspiration. ... Ours is not to claim his name for our standards but his aim as our standard."

Friday, December 19, 2008

Too Many Contestants

The Conservative Post makes a bold assertion about a statement President Bush made last weekend.

During an interview on CNN, Bush said, "I have made a decision to make sure the economy doesn't collapse. I've abandoned free market principles to save the free market system."

Scott Miller writes, "It's a statement so stunningly stupid, that when I heard Mark Levin discussing the comment, I thought he was joking for a minute."

Miller may have been dumbfounded by the remark, but it seems to me there is considerable competition for the title he bestowed on it: "The Dumbest Thing President Bush Has Ever Said."

As it is with former Vice President Dan Quayle, the title is in jeopardy every time Bush opens his mouth.

The World According to Bush

How about some of these gems from the 2000 campaign trail?

"One of the great things about books is, sometimes there are some fantastic pictures."

"I know how hard it is for you to put food on your family."

"It's clearly a budget. It's got a lot of numbers in it."

"I think we all agree, the past is over."

"I have a different vision of leadership. A leadership is someone who brings people together."

"I think if you say you're going to do something and don't do it, that's trustworthiness."

"They want the federal government controlling Social Security like it's some kind of federal program."

Or these choice comments made prior to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks:

"It was amazing I won. I was running against peace and prosperity and incumbency."

Upon meeting Queen Elizabeth, Bush said, "She was neat."

"[W]e would not accept a treaty that would not have been ratified, nor a treaty that I thought made sense for the country."

See what I mean?

And that doesn't even include these comments, which were made in the months and years after the attack:

"I have opinions of my own, strong opinions, but I don't always agree with them."

"There's an old saying in Tennessee — I know it's in Texas, probably in Tennessee — that says, fool me once, shame on — [pauses] — shame on you. Fool me — I can't get fooled again."

You may have noticed that I didn't mention Bush's characterization of Al Gore's economic policies as "fuzzy math" — a phrase that could easily be applied to the accounting practices that have been encouraged in recent years and that American taxpayers are now having to bail out.

The Death of Deep Throat

For three decades, he was a man of mystery, known only as "Deep Throat," the man who blew the whistle on the Nixon White House.

The world speculated endlessly about his identity until he made the decision, with input from his family, to reveal it in 2005.

Three and a half years later, Mark Felt died Thursday at the age of 95, apparently of congestive heart failure.

When Felt broke his silence, "Vanity Fair" broke the news to the world in an article headlined "I'm the Guy They Called Deep Throat."

Felt's family insisted on calling him an "American hero" for his contributions to the Watergate investigation as "Deep Throat" while associate director of the FBI, and he was praised by others as well. Among his motives, reportedly, was the belief that the revelation would be lucrative, helping to pay for his grandchildren's education.

Still others were not nearly as charitable, alleging less than altruistic reasons for blowing the whistle. They claimed that Felt — a known admirer of and loyalist to J. Edgar Hoover — had personal motives for his actions — including resentment for being passed over when Hoover's replacement was chosen after he died in 1972.

"[I]t is true I would like to have been appointed FBI director," Felt said, but he insisted that "I never leaked information to Woodward and Bernstein or anyone else!"

I don't know what the truth is, whether Felt was motivated by patriotic or personal reasons. Does it matter? As an amateur observer of human psychology, I'm kind of inclined to apply my favorite Forrest Gumpism to it: "I don't know if we each have a destiny, or if we're all just floating around accidental-like on a breeze, but I think maybe it's both. Maybe both is happening at the same time."

Richard Nixon, who died in 1994, believed Felt was "Deep Throat," perhaps in part because, as Nixon's own tape recordings revealed, Bob Haldeman, his chief of staff, told him that Felt "knows everything that's to be known in the FBI." Nixon never revealed Felt's identity, perhaps because he knew he would have been hurt more by the revelation than Felt.

"If we move on him, he'll go out and unload everything," Haldeman told Nixon.

In hindsight, it's hard to imagine Nixon being hurt more than he was. He resigned in August 1974.

The Washington Post's managing editor, Howard Simons, was the one who made the early decisions in 1972 for the paper to follow the story and to assign Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein to cover it, according to Barry Sussman, a former Post editor and author of "The Great Coverup: Nixon and the Watergate Scandal."

And Simons was the one who dubbed Felt "Deep Throat" — which was a bit of word play, using the name of a popular pornographic movie of the day and the fact that the celebrated source in the story was on what is known in the newspaper business as "deep background."

I don't know if Simons knew Felt's true identity. Woodward and Bernstein always claimed that only three people on the newspaper knew who "Deep Throat" was — the reporters and editor Ben Bradlee — and that they had made an agreement with the source not to reveal his identity until after his death — or unless he voluntarily chose to reveal himself.

Interestingly, it has been suggested that Felt may have believed he could plausibly deny revealing information to "Woodward and Bernstein" because he never met Bernstein.

(Bernstein confirmed, in an interview with CNN, that he did not meet Felt until this year.)

It is my understanding that, with the possible exception of some of the earliest articles, Woodward and Bernstein shared the byline credit on the Watergate-related stories — which would have led to the natural (although erroneous) assumption that any information source that one reporter knew, the other also knew.

It appears likely to me that only Felt's name was known to Bradlee as well — unless the esteemed editor accompanied Woodward on one of his late-night parking garage rendezvous with Felt.

I was a teenager in the Watergate years, and I've read many books and articles about Watergate, but I've never seen descriptions in any of the accounts of the meetings between Woodward and Felt of any additional people being present.

If Felt wasn't known to many people at the time, it seems certain that his name will be known to future generations of history students.

And his portrayal, by Hal Holbrook, as the shadowy source in the Dustin Hoffman-Robert Redford film "All the President's Men," may not be the only time his character is depicted on screen. After Felt's true identity was revealed in 2005, Universal Pictures and Tom Hanks' production company bought the movie rights.

To my knowledge, such a movie has not been started yet, but Felt's death may renew any flagging interest in the project.

And Woodward's rapidly written 2005 book about his relationship with Felt, "The Secret Man: The Story of Watergate's Deep Throat," may see an uptick in sales following Felt's death.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

A Dose of Reality

Given the current economic conditions, it isn't surprising that people are cautious and fearful.

Like this week, for example, when Chrysler announced that it was closing down operations for a month.

"The company said the plants, which employ 46,000 union workers, would resume production no sooner than Jan. 19," reports Nick Bunkley in the New York Times. "Some will remain closed for several more weeks."

The announcement sent ripples of shock waves through an already apprehensive workforce — "If I were a Chrysler worker, I'd be worried that the plant won't reopen," Brian Johnson, a Barclays Capital analyst, told the Washington Post — but is that the appropriate response?

I'm certainly no expert, but I did work for Citigroup for several years and we had a working relationship with Chrysler in the last few years I was there.

I had no direct dealings with the manufacturing end of things — my role was to perform verifications on customer information — but there were certainly times when I saw loans cross my desk that I would not have approved for any one of a number of reasons.

There was always someone, whether in the office or on the other end of the telephone line, who had the authority to overrule any issues that came up and permit the deal to proceed.

A friend of mine (who also no longer works for Citi) was much more involved with the manufacturers than I ever was.

I asked him, by e-mail, what he makes of this month-long shutdown.

"I don't think it is a big deal except for employees of the factories," he replied. "Normally, they are off two weeks at Christmas. Then another two weeks usually during the summer for re-tooling. This is basically for that duration. They may extend it, but it is okay for now."

Automakers are having trouble selling what they've already produced, he told me. That's certainly not a surprise.

"There is a glut of cars and nowhere to put them," my friend said. "Why not stop for a while, save some money, and get the inventory down which costs the dealers and manufacturers money? The employees will get paid a little from Chrysler and from the state for temporary unemployment.

"Makes sense, but it does stink as a sign of the overall market."


In today's economy, the hardest thing to do is advise people to be calm and patient.

But, if my friend is correct — and I have no reason to believe he is not — what auto workers need to do is be patient for a month and see what happens. That's what their employer plans to do.

"No one will return to work any earlier than Jan. 19," Chrysler spokesperson Shawn Morgan told the Washington Post. "I don't want to get into speculating about what may happen after that. ... We're going to continue to monitor the situation."

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

A New Senator Kennedy?

After weeks of speculation, apparently Caroline Kennedy has told New York Gov. David Paterson that she is interested in the Senate seat that will be vacated by Secretary of State nominee Hillary Clinton.

It seems fitting that Kennedy should occupy the seat, even though she has never shown any interest in a political post before. Her efforts have leaned to the more artistic and more nurturing side. Now 51, Kennedy has been a writer, editor, mother, and she's been involved in a lot of community work.

She's also a lawyer, like her father and uncles, with degrees from Harvard and Columbia. She has expressed opinions that are in line with Clinton's. But she's never run for public office.

It is, however, the "family business," you might say.

For a long time, most people believed her brother John would be the one from her generation to continue the family's political presence in the Senate beyond the tenure of their Uncle Ted, but John died in a tragic plane crash nearly 10 years ago.

Some of her cousins may yet ascend to great political heights, but none have served in the exclusive Senate and only a few have reached the House.

Paterson seems to be under some pressure by women's groups to appoint a woman to replace Clinton. Such pressure implies that any woman will do as long as the appointee is a woman. To me, that seems like a rather odd way of looking at it. It suggests that gender representation is all that matters.

But, if that were the case, doesn't it follow that more women would have supported the McCain-Palin ticket in November? That didn't happen. Instead, Barack Obama received 56% of the women's vote nationally.

In New York, the percentage for Obama was even higher — 67% of New York's female voters picked the Democrats.

Clinton's supporters in the primaries, although disappointed, did not gravitate to the ticket that had a woman on it. They voted for the ticket that more closely reflected their own beliefs. Ideology trumped gender.

The voters in New York didn't elect Clinton to the Senate because she was a woman — although she got the opportunity to seek the job because her husband was president (not unlike Kennedy, who has qualifications she has earned on her own but is considered a prominent prospect for this post because her father was president).

They elected her because she reflects their beliefs. When given the chance to choose their senator in a special election in 2010, those voters again will pick the candidate they feel more closely reflects their beliefs. My guess is that ideology will be more important than gender.

Kennedy may be the most prominent woman mentioned in connection with the vacancy, but she isn't the only woman who is interested, as CNN's Kristi Keck reports.

Among the women who have expressed an interest are Reps. Carolyn Maloney and Kirsten Gillibrand, New York City teachers union president Randi Weingarten and actress Fran Drescher.

And apparently, Kennedy will have to wage an intense campaign in two years in a special election to keep the seat — if she gets this appointment. She may come from a political family, but she'll be a novice as a candidate and can be expected to stumble a few times.

Rep. Peter King, a Long Island Republican who is making noises about running in 2010, is not deterred by the Kennedy name — even though his probable opponent is the daughter of a president and the niece of a one-time occupant of the seat she now desires.

And other politicians — in both parties — may be waiting in the wings — preferring to make their cases to the voters of New York rather than a constituency of one.

"I strongly believe that I'm much more qualified, much more experienced, and have an independent record," King said. "Nothing against Caroline Kennedy, but I don't think anyone has a right to a seat."

I must admit that I agree with King on that point — no one has a right to a Senate seat. These aren't family heirlooms — even though many people believe that the aide who has been appointed to Joe Biden's seat is merely going to keep it warm for Biden's son to win in two years — when his deployment to Iraq presumably will be over.

But that's a choice the voters will make. There have been many times when voters have been given the opportunity to vote for the son or daughter of a prominent politician from the past. Whatever the outcome, it is in the voters' hands.

And these seats aren't property for governors to sell to the highest bidder, either.

The people of these states are entitled to be represented by senators who share the same beliefs as the senators being replaced. Nothing else matters — gender, race, religion, age, nothing.

It's appropriate — in an ironic sort of way — for nepotism to come up in regard to this particular Senate vacancy. After all, wasn't that one of the arguments against Clinton's candidacy for the presidential nomination?

Monday, December 15, 2008

It's Officially Obama

The presidential electors in each state gathered in their state capitols and performed their constitutional duty today.

And, to no one's surprise, Barack Obama has been elected president of the United States.

But I guess it isn't technically official until January 6 — when Congress, in a joint session, calculates the totals for Obama and John McCain. I'm no whiz at math, but I can tell you how it breaks down right now — unless there are one or two "faithless electors" out there (of which I am unaware).

If there are any defectors, that might throw my calculations off a little.

But it shouldn't take long to calculate how 538 votes break down — even for someone as mathematically challenged as I!

Nevertheless, I'm sure it must cost something to perform these tasks that the Constitution has required for more than 200 years — even if it's only the reimbursement of each elector's transportation expenses, meal costs and the price of a night's lodging in each state's capitol.

These aren't phantom electors — numbers to be added and subtracted but nothing tangible. These are real people — and they're the ones who really choose the president and vice president.

Of course, I'm sure the eventual cost involves more than just the basic expenses of getting the electors together. What about the food, lodging and transportation costs, not to mention overtime pay, for anyone who must work because the electors are gathering — i.e., security personnel, maintenance workers at the 50 state capitols and other services providers?

And what about similar costs associated with the joint session of Congress to essentially rubber-stamp the electoral vote?

A joint session of Congress is typically a special occasion — which would suggest out-of-pocket expenses for anyone required to be there.

But, at a time when the American taxpayers are being expected to pick up the tab for billions of dollars in bailouts, it seems an unnecessary burden to ask them to continue to pay for a long-outdated process to select national leaders.

It is the 21st century, not the 18th century.

We can do things that were not possible more than 200 years ago.

It doesn't take weeks or months for news to travel from one place to another anymore.

We have the capability to see what is happening on the other side of the globe at any time of the day or night.

And we can perform tasks faster and more efficiently. More than 130 million people voted in the November election — the highest number on record — and nearly all the votes had been counted within a matter of hours.

Isn't it time to do away with the Electoral College — and let direct popular vote select the president and vice president?

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Is Blago Gonna Go?

Illinois officials, including the state's attorney general, are saying today that Gov. Rod Blagojevich is going to make an announcement on Monday, and some are speculating that he will step down — or at least "step aside."

That's how Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan put it on "Meet the Press."

"I don't know if that means he will resign or take another option that is provided under the Illinois constitution," she said, explaining that the governor could "voluntarily recognize that there is a serious impediment to his ability to carry out his duties, and therefore temporarily remove himself."

It doesn't seem to me that a "temporary" solution is what Illinois officials want — never mind what Blagojevich wants.

While they've been trying to sort out that mess in Illinois, apparently the writers at "Saturday Night Live" have already figured it out.

I must admit that I didn't watch the show last night. But it apparently opened with a scathingly funny parody of the Blagojeviches and a "Weekend Update" routine called "Really!" — in which Amy Poehler, in what was apparently her final show, and Seth Meyers took the governor to task on everything.

"You should resign," Meyers said. "Even Illinois politicians are saying you should resign, and when Illinois politicians think you're too corrupt, you're too corrupt."

As Phil Rosenthal observes in the Chicago Tribune, "Now we know how they feel in Wasilla, Alaska."

I guess the next step would be to empathize with Whittier, Calif.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

The 'Voiceless Sinatra'

I saw no photos of him in his later years, but Van Johnson always looked younger than he was, and I assume that was true even when he died Friday at the age of 92. For that, he was known as the "voiceless Sinatra."

When I was growing up, it seemed that Johnson was always on TV or the movie screen. The television programs were new, but he never seemed to age, whether he was a guest on "Here's Lucy!" (Lucille Ball was one of his early benefactors), "Batman," "Love, American Style," "Maude," "McCloud," "Fantasy Island," "Murder, She Wrote" or a miniseries like "Rich Man, Poor Man."

As a child, I saw him at the movie theater on occasion — in the family-oriented film "Where Angels Go, Trouble Follows," which was an inferior sequel to the Hayley Mills vehicle, "The Trouble With Angels," although it benefited from Johnson's presence as the priest who runs a boys' school.

And I saw him appear with Ball and Henry Fonda in "Yours, Mine and Ours."

Johnson's seemingly age-defying quality was something that certainly helped his career, along with the fact that a serious injury in a car accident left him with a metal plate in his head and prevented him from being drafted into World War II.

That accident qualified as a "blessing in disguise," because Johnson had little significant competition for youthful leading-man roles at MGM during the war years.

He never won any awards for his acting, but he earned solid reviews for performances in films like "A Guy Named Joe," "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo" and "The Human Comedy."

I will always remember his earnest performance as Lt. Maryk in "The Caine Mutiny," but I must admit that Johnson has never been the first — or even the second — person I've thought of when I've thought of that movie.

My first thoughts have always been of Humphrey Bogart as the unstable captain or Fred MacMurray as the glib communications officer who plants the seeds of rebellion or even Jose Ferrer as the lawyer who defends Johnson in the court-martial.

Johnson's character was a steady presence in that film, though, and a crucial element in the moral of the story.

I guess the last time I saw him in a film was more than 20 years ago, when I saw him in Woody Allen's "The Purple Rose of Cairo" (as one of the characters who is trapped on the movie screen after Jeff Daniels' character leaves the film and enters the real world) — although Johnson remained active in movies and TV for about seven years after making that film — and in dinner theater until he was in his 80s.

As luck would have it, a couple of Johnson's movies are scheduled to be shown on the cable channel Turner Classic Movies this month.

"Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo" will be aired by TCM Friday at 10:15 a.m. (Central). TCM also is scheduled to show the musical "In the Good Old Summertime," starring Johnson and Judy Garland, on Christmas Eve at 1:15 p.m. (Central).

They serve as timely reminders of Johnson's versatility.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Coping With Unemployment

It seems that, no matter the angle from which it is observed, unemployment is in rarely charted waters.

Whether it's seen from the perspective of "new claims" filed or a "four-week moving average," things haven't been this bad since 1982, Reuters reports.

I guess things wouldn't have to be so bad if more employers lived by no-layoff policies. Don't think such a thing is possible in today's economy? Jessica Dickler writes, in CNNMoney.com, that some companies have long abided by a no-layoffs rule — and insist that they will continue to operate that way.

Certainly, the economy forces everyone to make some concessions. And these companies, Dickler says, sometimes ask their employees to make sacrifices.

But the employees themselves are not sacrificed.

Such an enlightened approach to the management-employee relationship might be part of the ultimate solution, although it seems unlikely that this recession will be regarded as milder than the one that confronted America in 1982.

What was the world like a quarter of a century ago?

Well, like today, the United States was in the grip of a recession — economic historians will tell you it was short but severe. I guess any recession seems severe when you're living through it.

We'll need to let more time pass before we know how long this recession is, but I think the consensus would be that it's going to be remembered as severe, whatever the duration may be.

In November of 1982, the Republicans managed to add slightly to the majority they gained in the Senate two years earlier, but Democrats picked up nearly 30 seats in the House — in spite of President Reagan's pleas to voters to "stay the course."

Unleaded gas was selling for around $1.28 a gallon in 1982. That's less than we pay today — but not nearly so sharp a decline as it is from what we were paying a few months ago.

So, if you're out of work, it doesn't cost as much to drive to interviews. But cash-strapped cities still charge outrageous fees for parking — and waste little time issuing tickets to violators when their meters expire.

First-class postage stamps cost about half what they cost today.

The popular songs Americans heard on their radios in 1982 were "Eye of the Tiger," "Ebony and Ivory," "Physical" and "I Love Rock 'n' Roll."

When they sought other forms of escapism, their favorite movies dealt with the supernatural ("E.T." and "Poltergeist"), sexual identity ("Tootsie" and "Victor/Victoria"), soldiers ("An Officer and a Gentleman"), sequels ("Rocky III" and "Star Trek II") and smut ("Porky's").

And Americans looked for inspiration wherever they could find it.

In 1982, a man named Larry Walters, who had been frustrated in his dream of being an Air Force pilot by poor eyesight, bought 45 weather balloons and some helium tanks. He and his girlfriend attached the balloons to his lawn chair and filled them with helium. Wearing a parachute and strapped into the chair, Walters also had beer, sandwiches, a CB radio, a camera and his pellet gun.

His friends cut the cord that tied the chair to his vehicle, and off he went. It is estimated that he reached an altitude of about 15,000 feet, ultimately sailing into federal airspace over Long Beach, Calif. Walters used the pellet gun to shoot a few of the balloons, and the chair began its descent. Some of the dangling lines got tangled in a power line, causing a 20-minute blackout, but Walters was able to get to the ground, where he was taken into custody.

Asked why he did it, the now (temporarily) famous Walters said, "A man can't just sit around."

Kind of reminds me of what Willie Sutton supposedly said when he was asked why he robbed banks: "Because that's where the money is."

Many Americans never heard of Oskar Schindler until Steven Spielberg's Oscar-winning film "Schindler's List" in the early 1990s. But the book upon which it was based, Thomas Keneally's "Schindler's Ark," was published in 1982.

Schindler had to resort to creative techniques to save more than 1,000 people who almost certainly would have been casualties of the Nazi regime — yet his efforts were virtually unknown by much of the world until Spielberg made his movie nearly half a century later.

Unusual times require unusual measures. Perhaps that's the lesson to be applied to 2008.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Senate Seat for Sale


"Who will buy this wonderful morning?
Such a sky you never did see!
Who will tie it up with a ribbon
And put it in a box for me?

"So I could see it at my leisure
Whenever things go wrong
And I would keep it as a treasure
To last my whole life long."


"Oliver!"
Lyrics by Lionel Bart


Illinois' Rod Blagojevich isn't the only governor faced with a Senate vacancy to fill following the elections and the majority of the Cabinet appointments.

But he's the only one who's put a price tag on one.

The Blagojevich story becomes more sordid with each new telling. From coast to coast, everyone, it seems, is weighing in on the matter — and no one has anything good to say about it.

"If the world was roused by the sight from Chicago barely one month ago, hundreds of thousands of people streaming into Grant Park to celebrate the triumph of possibility over tainted history," writes Timothy Egan in the New York Times, "the arrest of Governor Blagojevich on a dark and drizzly Chicago dawn was quite the opposite image."

Egan's column carried the cryptic headline of "Roll Over, Abe Lincoln."

In a San Francisco Chronicle blog, Caille Millner wrote about an (unidentified) Illinois resident who "created a fake eBay account for the governor and put Obama's seat up for sale." Millner observed that the post was quickly removed by some alert eBay staffer but noted that "the stunt was the best response I've seen so far to this tawdry, crazy story."

I guess you have to keep a sense of humor. I don't know how the unemployed in Illinois are reacting to all this, but the Chicago newspapers are not amused.

"The governor must resign immediately," writes the conservative Chicago Tribune, whose parent company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on Monday. "If he doesn't, the Illinois House should begin proceedings to impeach him, and to ask the Senate to try him."

The Chicago Sun-Times concurs. "Even if the governor were found not guilty of every accusation against him — and given the apparent weight of the evidence against him, we’re not taking any bets — the criminal charges would cripple his already limited ability to lead Illinois."

Therefore, the newspaper says, "If Gov. Blagojevich does not resign immediately, impeach him."

Just make sure, as Bob Barker (who turns 85 on Friday) would say, that the price is right.