Saturday, January 31, 2009

Nothing to Fear But Fear Itself

"This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory."

Franklin D. Roosevelt
March 4, 1933

Franklin D. Roosevelt made many great speeches during his life, and the ones he made as president were his most famous.

It was part of his mission, as he saw it — to reassure, to comfort, to cajole. Hardly an anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor goes by without someone somewhere playing a recording of his famous "day of infamy" speech to Congress, which may be one of his more famous speeches.

He led America before the days of television, and his voice on the radio was soothing for many. Inspirational. It was a stark change from his predecessor, and it worked so well that it was a big reason why America elected him president four times.

Under existing law, it is no longer possible for a president to be elected four times. In fact, in large part, the law limiting presidents to two terms was passed by the opposition party because it didn't want to repeat the experience and find itself wandering in the wilderness for another two decades.

Ironically, in more than half a century since that law was passed, the presidents who were believed to be popular enough after eight years in office to win a third term have been members of that opposition party, not Roosevelt's party. Of course, only one president from Roosevelt's party (Bill Clinton) has been elected twice since FDR died.

When Roosevelt took office, the country was in the grip of the Great Depression. Some of have compared current conditions to the ones that existed when FDR first became president. Admittedly, today's economy is not as bad as it was in 1933, but each new economic report indicates that the conditions are worse than they've been since that time — and most people seem to think things will get even worse before they get better.

I don't know what Americans were hoping for when Roosevelt was elected president, but I assume they wanted a change. The Republicans had been in charge of the executive branch for a dozen years, and the incumbent was asking the voters to give him four more. But more than 57% of the voters voted for Roosevelt instead, and he carried 42 of 48 states.

Barack Obama's mandate was not as sweeping as Roosevelt's — nor was he running against the incumbent — but the message the voters delivered — while adding to the Democrats' majorities in the House and Senate — was that they weren't happy with the direction the country was taking, and, like that generation three-quarters of a century earlier, they wanted change.

If George W. Bush had been on the ballot, my guess is he would not have fared any better than the actual Republican nominee did. In fact, he might even have done worse.

Obama hasn't been in office for two full weeks yet, but his popularity ratings have been the polar opposite of his predecessor's. In his last year in office, the occasions when Bush's approval ratings reached 30% or better meant it was time to uncork the champagne bottles — but such occasions became fewer and farther between the deeper we got into 2008. And when he left office, the vast majority of respondents said they would not miss him when he was gone.

In stark contrast, Obama's approval rating in his first three days on the job was 68%.

Poll results are nothing more than snapshots of public opinion. They only measure — and not with 100% precision — how people feel at a given moment in time. The public's mood can shift quickly — and sometimes for the most unlikely reasons. I suppose that is why Terence Samuel suggests, in The American Prospect, that the new president "should hire himself an expectations czar and immediately elevate the person to a Cabinet-level position."

Making it a Cabinet-level position probably isn't feasible, but I'm inclined to believe that Samuel might be on to something there. Even with the public's high expectations and the jubilant mood on the day of his inauguration, Obama did not get a single Republican in the House to vote for the economic stimulus plan this week, and he even lost 11 Democrats.

He didn't need them, of course. The Democrats had more than enough votes to give Obama a victory in the House. But he failed to get even a modest bipartisan victory.

In that sense, nothing has changed. Obama spoke frequently before and after the election about his desire for a bipartisan approach, for the abandonment of politics as usual. But — in the House at least — it was still a political victory, the majority party vs. the minority party, Democrat vs. Republican, left vs. right. It was no different, really, than when the Republicans controlled the White House and the Congress. All that's changed is which party is in charge.

Until this country gets the sense that everyone in the federal government is working together for the common good, there will be no lasting belief that it's no longer politics as usual. But there's some residual confidence in Obama that the new president should capitalize on now.

"[C]onfidence in Barack Obama is all that is standing between us and a complete collapse into economic and emotional depression," Samuel writes. And he is correct about that.

The assessments of things are certainly dire, as Samuel observes. Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii estimates that we're losing 20,000 jobs a day, and he predicts that job losses for January will be 600,000 — if not more. And the only reason why Americans do not believe that a complete collapse is imminent, Samuel writes, is "[b]ecause people think Obama can fix it."

Consumer confidence is lower than it's been in more than four decades. Consumer spending is drying up. Dissatisfaction with the state of things is rampant, yet, as Samuel points out, "Obama's approval rating is at historic highs."

Obama hasn't been in office long, and Samuel concedes that "after a week, there is not much on which to judge him. But whatever it is he's got going, he's got to keep it up."

Samuel says Obama has to keep expectations high, and he's right. But Obama can't do it alone. For that reason, it's a good thing that he's having more than a dozen members of Congress over for a Super Bowl party tomorrow night. When the Senate takes up the debate on the stimulus package, he has to have some Republicans enlisted in the cause.

The best way to keep expectations high is to give the impression that he's trying to work with everyone. Obama probably can claim another political victory in the Senate with only Democratic votes, but he needs some Republican votes to give confidence a boost. Over and over during the general election campaign, voters kept saying they were tired of politics as usual.

But the more they get the sense that politics as usual still prevails, the faster the "Obama bubble" is going to burst.

Friday, January 30, 2009

White House Super Bowl Party

Word is that President Obama will be hosting a Super Bowl party at the White House Sunday evening. Invitations have been extended to several members of Congress, Republicans as well as Democrats.

Press secretary Robert Gibbs says it is a way of "bringing people together." Among the guests will be both of the senators and three of the representatives from Pennsylvania — who, presumably, will be rooting for the Pittsburgh Steelers — and two representatives from Arizona — who, presumably, will be rooting for the Arizona Cardinals. Arizona Sen. John McCain, who lost the election to Obama last November, is not on the guest list posted by CNN.

Eight other members of Congress will be there, but they have no apparent rooting interest.

Gibbs joked that his deputy will provide the seven-layer dip, but he said no wagering will be allowed.

All the same, it's a good idea for the president to have several people on hand for the game. Remember what happened seven years ago, when George W. Bush was watching a football game by himself?

He choked on a pretzel, fell and lost consciousness briefly. Bush was all right, as it turned out, but the incident was fodder for a "Saturday Night Live" sketch.

Conditions these days are no laughing matter. America doesn't need a president who chokes on a tortilla chip and loses consciousness, even briefly.

If several people are on hand, surely someone will know the Heimlich maneuver and be prepared to use it in an emergency.

More Bad Economic News

In case anyone needed further evidence of the miserable job George W. Bush did as steward of the nation's economy, we have figures that show that the economy suffered its sharpest decline in more than a quarter of a century in the final three months of 2008.

Economic activity shrank by 3.8%, reports. And it has further bad news. Some economists think that, even though the decline wasn't as bad as some had feared, it's a sign that worse news lies ahead.

Meanwhile, as American consumers were absorbing the shift in economic fortunes, spending fell at a 3.5% annual rate, which says is the seventh largest drop on record.

And fixed investment dropped at the highest rate in half a century. As observes, fixed investment in equipment and software is "taken as an indication of business spending."

Economists expressed surprise at the growth in business inventories.

Chris Isidore, a senior writer for, says the increase was "brought about by businesses being unable to sell the goods they had on hand."

And, according to Gus Faucher, director of macroeconomics for Moody's, "As bad as this quarter was, it means the first quarter will be worse."

It's hard to say what the impact will be on jobs. We'll get the latest report on jobs next week. But President Obama seems to have a pretty good idea of what's ahead.

"This isn't just an economic concept," he said. "This is a continuing disaster for America's working families. As worrying as these numbers are, it's what they mean to the American people that really matters."

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Politics As Usual No More

I hope today signals that the era of politics as usual has ended.
  • In Illinois, not a single member of the Illinois state senate voted against removing Gov. Rod Blagojevich from office — even though Blagojevich made a lengthy speech defending himself.

    Moments later, the state senate took it a step further, voting unanimously to prevent Blagojevich from ever holding political office in Illinois again. If he's going to practice his smarmy style of politics in the future, it will have to be in another state.

    Well, he can't say he wasn't warned. Seth Meyers told Blagojevich in a "Saturday Night Live" skit last month, "Illinois politicians are saying you should resign. And when Illinois politicians think you're too corrupt ... YOU'RE TOO CORRUPT!"

    Blagojevich could have saved the taxpayers of his state a lot of anxiety and money if he had followed Meyers' advice — instead of pursuing his vain hope of staying in office.

    Well, if it's any consolation to the folks in Illinois, Blagojevich is history now.

  • President Obama scolded Wall Street bankers for giving themselves billions in bonuses. Obama called it "the height of irresponsibility" — as well he should.

    The tally for the bonuses exceeds $18 billion. Talk about a golden parachute.

    And now, finally ...

  • In the U.S. Senate, Minority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky lamented the fact that the GOP is becoming irrelevant.

    "We're all concerned about the fact that the very wealthy and the very poor, the most and least educated, and a majority of minority voters, seem to have more or less stopped paying attention to us," McConnell said. "And we should be concerned that, as a result of all this, the Republican Party seems to be slipping into a position of being more of a regional party than a national one."

    Well, Mitch, it might not have come to this if you folks had done your jobs. But you might still be able to salvage at least a shred of respect if you'll step up to the plate and support the stimulus package when it comes to the Senate.

    Yeah, right. Like that's going to happen.

The 'Perfect Storm' Theory

While millions of people are dragging themselves out of bed this morning and making the latest in what seems like an endless effort to find a job, theorists are wondering how we got here.

The latest theory that I've seen applies the title of a Hollywood film, which was taken from the title of a best-selling book about a real event — "The Perfect Storm."

This theory suggests that the economic crisis really began earlier in the decade, with the so-called "housing bubble."

I'll let you read it for yourself. It's interesting. But I'll leave it to economists to determine whether it's correct or not.

And, if you're unemployed, your situation is not theoretical. It's something that must be endured every day.

Theories may explain how you got there. And it is useful to know how mistakes were made — so they are not repeated. But they don't provide much guidance to where you would like to be.

It Tolls For Thee ...

"Each man's death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee."

John Donne

I guess it's human nature for the mind to reject, to block out, unpleasant images and thoughts that challenge the things we deeply believe to be true about people.

I frequently encountered that mindset in the blogosphere the other day, after the news began to spread of the tragic murder-suicide in California.

In the unlikely event that you haven't heard about this, I'll briefly recap what little is known about it at this point. After he and his wife had been terminated from their jobs, a man in southern California is believed to have killed his wife and five children, then apparently turned the gun on himself. I say he is the apparent perpetrator because police found the gun next to his body. There were no eyewitnesses that I know of.

Los Angeles police — who are no strangers to drive-by shootings and violent crimes — are describing the scene as one of the worst they've ever witnessed.

A neighbor told CNN, "There was an officer who came out of the house throwing up."

The other night, I was reading posts at other sites and blogs in which people were judging the man in some of the harshest ways imaginable. The man was "selfish," one person wrote, adding — with no evidence to back it up — that he worshipped money and the only thing that mattered to him was material possessions.

Actually, I wouldn't say that. I would be more inclined to apply the label of "selfish" to someone like John List, an unemployed accountant who planned and then carried out the murders of his family in 1971, then spent more than 17 years as a fugitive before he was captured after his story was told on "America's Most Wanted."

List died at the age of 82 last year, more than 35 years after he killed his mother, his wife and his three children.

The man in southern California, Ervin Lupoe, took the easy way out, someone else wrote the other night. I disagree. John List took the easy way out. Lupoe's actions were wrong, but he did not choose to start his life over after ending the lives of his family members, the way List did. He accepted the same fate he apparently forced upon his wife and children (some are suggesting that Lupoe and his wife made this decision together and that he was the one who carried out the plan).

Whether one believes in God or not, whether one believes in an afterlife or not, whether one believes that someone who takes his life and/or the lives of others will spend the rest of eternity paying for it in hell, it is a point, in my opinion, that is beyond dispute.

Some people will refuse to accept it, though. Some people are slaves to their lifelong conclusions about not only murder and suicide but also about unemployment and recessions and related matters. They simply refuse to consider other factors.

Some people treat economics like it's all a theoretical subject in school. Certain conditions lead to an increase in unemployment, therefore certain actions must be taken to improve the economy and, as a result, the number of unemployed will go down. It's all a numbers game.

No, it isn't. Fortunately, there are those who seem to understand that many people feel pushed to the brink. But the fact that many don't comprehend it fosters a feeling of further isolation.

That's people we're talking about. Not numbers. Not percentages. People.

And there are some who insist on seeing the unemployed as lazy and shiftless, people who would rather sit around at home and collect money from the government than earn a paycheck.

CNN reports that counselors are saying that it's bad out there. It quotes one counselor who says things have never been so bad in her tenure. "[T]he people that we're dealing with now, they have always had [money]," she says. "They went to school, they were able to get jobs. Now the jobs are not even out there."

That contradicts what I keep hearing, over and over, from conservatives who say that this is just a recession, that it is no worse than others we've seen. If the unemployed had any gumption, some say, they'd go out and find work instead of living off government handouts.

Those people, obviously, haven't been looking for work recently. And they're not paying attention to the fact that many of the people who are unemployed went to college. They worked hard, and they earned their bachelor's degrees and master's degrees — which they believed were their tickets to lives of security.

Now that they've been cut off at the knees, should we be surprised that they look at those degrees now as nothing more than expensive wall decorations?

Sure, those degrees represent accomplishments. They show a depth of dedication, a willingness to make sacrifices for long-term goals, and those people should be proud of those achievements. What's more, those are personal qualities that any employer should find desirable in his/her employees.

But, for those who have submitted hundreds of résumés but haven't received any calls from employers, that isn't much consolation.

Those who haven't lost their jobs should be thankful that they still have them and should do whatever they must do to keep them. But there is only so much a person can do. If an employer has to make an unpleasant choice in order to remain in operation, the employer will make that choice — and may not give much thought to the human consequences.

As the saying goes, it's a dog eat dog world out there. And, as the famous beer-swilling Norm from "Cheers!" once said, "I'm wearing Milk Bone underwear."

By the way, the quotation at the top of this post was inspired by the 1624 Meditation 17, from "Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions." In turn, it served as the inspiration for Ernest Hemingway's novel "For Whom the Bell Tolls" and Thomas Merton's "No Man is an Island."

The original passage is worth reading on this occasion:
"No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were. Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee ... "

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

House Approves Stimulus Bill

The House of Representatives gave President Obama an important victory today, passing the $819 billion stimulus package by a vote of 244-188.

Regrettably, the only thing bipartisan about the vote was the opposition to it. No Republicans supported the bill, and 11 Democrats voted against it. The Senate, says, is likely to take up the bill next week.

The House appears to have done what a majority of the American people want them to do — which is the purpose of representation. At, visitors can participate in an online poll, which isn't scientific, but it usually tends to be a pretty fair indicator of public sentiment. So far, at 8:55 p.m. (Central), about 270,000 people have voted in today's poll, which asks visitors to indicate whether they support or oppose the stimulus package. Currently, 60% of respondents are in favor.

I'm glad the House voted in favor of it, but I'm sorry no Republicans were able to put politics aside and do the right thing for the country. I'm equally sorry that 11 Democrats voted with the Republicans. It sends the wrong message to the people of this country who are experiencing genuine pain right now and need their lawmakers to show them that they still matter for something more than their votes every other November.

Shame on you.

The End of the World?

I tend to take apocalyptic predictions with a grain of salt.

When I was in college, I was fascinated by a film I saw on cable about the predictions of Nostradamus. It was narrated by Orson Welles, and it dealt with the interpretations many scholars had made about Nostradamus' predictions for the future. (The title was "The Man Who Saw Tomorrow.")

In the film, Nostradamus (who died in the 16th century) was said to have predicted such things as:
  • The French Revolution in the 18th century;

  • the American Revolution, also in the 18th century;

  • the assassinations of Presidents Lincoln and Kennedy;

  • the assassination of presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy;

  • the rise to power of Hitler and World War II, as well as the first uses of the atomic bomb; and

  • the Islamic Revolution in Iran.
The film was made in the early 1980s. Welles, who died in 1985, suggested in the film that Nostradamus' predictions pointed to, among other things, a major earthquake in Los Angeles in May 1988. That never happened, although a major earthquake did strike in San Francisco the following year, and Los Angeles was the victim of an earthquake in 1994.

Welles also said the predictions suggested that a "third antichrist" (the first two were Napoleon and Hitler) would rise to power in the Middle East and would start a third world war. Some people have suggested that this third antichrist is Osama bin Laden, but the war in Afghanistan — so far — hardly rises to the level of either of the first two world wars.

Nevertheless, the film provoked some intriguing discussions between my friends and myself. So did the interpretation of the prediction of when the world would come to an end — late in the 38th century.

None of us will still be here nearly 1,800 years from now, so we won't be able to confirm whether Nostradmus was right.

Welles, who had a reputation for accepting just about any work that would provide him with funds to support endeavors he really believed in, seems to have rejected most, if not all, of the conclusions in the film. At the time he made "The Man Who Saw Tomorrow," Welles reportedly was interested in making an extended videotape of his 1942 film "The Magnificent Ambersons" — these days, it would be called a "director's cut." Perhaps that was his motivation for making the film.

"One might as well make predictions based on random passages from the phone book," he once told Merv Griffin.

But others have predicted a date for the end of the world that is much closer — Dec. 21, 2012. That is the date that allegedly was forecast by the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar, which was used by the Mayan civilization.

And, whether 2012 will be apocalyptic or not, several writers have penned books suggesting that all kinds of things will happen that year — the collision of an asteroid or comet with the earth; a shift of consciousness; all kinds of upheaval.

Now, a new film, called simply "2012," is going to be released later this year.

I learned many things when I was in college. After I saw "The Man Who Saw Tomorrow," I was inspired to buy a couple of books on Nostradamus' predictions. And I remember asking the father of my high school girlfriend, who was a philosophy professor, what he knew of Nostradamus and what he thought of the predictions. At the time, I was disappointed when he merely chuckled and said he didn't think much of it.

I still have those books, and they make for interesting reading, but I like to think that I've matured in my thinking since I received my bachelor's degree. And I'm not inclined to think that Nostradamus' predictions have any more constructive information to reveal about the future than I am about the "Book of Revelation" in the Bible — although there are certainly a lot of people in the world who believe in that.

The fact is there are still people who do believe that sort of thing and need little encouragement to eagerly embrace it. And one of the things I've learned in my life is that there are always other people who are anxious to exploit this kind of thing, whether for their own pleasure or profit or out of malice or whatever.

I recall that, almost immediately after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, someone began circulating an e-mail message that claimed that Nostradamus had predicted those events. My own brother sent me an e-mail and asked me if there was anything to it. He knew I had read these books about Nostradamus' predictions, and he felt I would be a good source for accurate information.

I reported to him — and I later confirmed, by re-reading the material — that the e-mail in question appeared to have combined phrases from separate "quatrains," which gave it the sound of authenticity. But I found no evidence that Nostradamus ever wrote a prediction that forecast the attacks.

Now, that doesn't mean that there aren't legitimate threats to the planet that should concern us all. Former Vice President Al Gore, for example, has warned people of the dangers of global warming. He has been ridiculed for it in some quarters, but he's received some support for his hypothesis in others.

And the new president has been encouraging moves toward energy independence, in part to help curb global warming, whether it is real or merely perceived. Even if global warming does not exist, as some people have suggested, surely we will all benefit from finding new fuel sources that make the air cleaner and lessen our dependence on foreign suppliers.

If there was a part of Welles' narration that was a reflection of his actual beliefs, it was his observation that man holds in his own hands the keys to his fate.

We may not have the technology to prevent a collision between our planet and an asteroid.

But we can control the course of events here on earth.

The Stimulus

It's admirable, I believe, that, in the current economic crisis, Barack Obama wants the government to leave behind its tendency to play politics as usual.

But I wonder whether very many Democrats or Republicans are taking that recommendation to heart.

As David Goldman reports for, the House is expected to vote on the $825 billion stimulus package later today — provided the wintry weather in the region doesn't interfere with the lawmakers' ability to get to Capitol Hill.

I wrote in this blog last night about the urgent need for a stimulus bill, and I encouraged both Democrats and Republicans to study the stimulus package and make logical recommendations for changes.

Such changes should be sensible. They should not be guided by political dogma and rhetoric.

Too many people seem to be losing sight of who needs to be helped in these troubled times. It isn't always who you might think.

But there are some who see the benefits that are there.

Sam Dillon writes, in the New York Times, about the ways education will benefit. I have no children, but I have many friends who do. And I think it's a good thing that the stimulus package "would shower the nation's school districts, child care centers and university campuses with $150 billion in new federal spending." Education got the short end of the stick under the previous administration, and if big corporations can get billions in bailout money, only to squander it on a new private jet or office renovations, the government can provide some long-needed funds to help education.

At the very least, government should be able to help create some jobs for people who can rebuild schools that are crumbling. It's got to be hard to concentrate on lessons that are being taught if you're worried about the roof above you caving in.

Robert Pear writes, also in the New York Times, that the stimulus package "is also a tool for rewriting the social contract with the poor, the uninsured and the unemployed." These are the people, not the corporate executives, who have been hurt the most and have the most to lose.

I understand the necessity of holding hearings on these matters, but as I've said before, time is of the essence. We can't dawdle and nitpick. Lives hang (literally) in the balance.

I wrote last night about the tragic murder-suicide that was being reported in the Los Angeles area yesteday. Initial accounts suggest that the apparent perpetrator, the patriarch of the family, may have been distraught after he and his wife lost their jobs. Some bloggers on the internet were writing that the tragedy was the result of the man's obsession with material possessions and money. Perhaps that is so, but I've neither seen nor heard any evidence of that.

I do, however, know about the desperation that can lead people to commit irrational acts.

As a California congresswoman told the New York Times, "This is as urgent as it gets."

Our government is supposed to exist for many reasons — one of which is to provide a safety net, but it permitted too many holes to go unrepaired in the last eight years. Now those holes must be mended. It is wrong to complain about the cost.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

A Casualty of the Times?

I don't know if this is the first of similar cases to come.

But, at first glance, it appears to indicate the desperation that many are feeling in today's economy.

A man in the Los Angeles area, who may have been despondent after losing his job, apparently killed his wife, his five children and himself.

Los Angeles police say that they found notes referring to "work-related issues" at the crime scene.

More details probably will be revealed in the days and weeks ahead, I'm sure. And, while I hate to rush to judgment on something like this, it appears that the termination of the employment of both the man and his wife — they apparently worked for the same employer — triggered what happened.

If the loss of their jobs was behind this tragic event, it shows that some people may feel that they have no choices left — even though the L.A. police are insisting that "[i]n these tough economic times, there are other options."

That may be so — and not only in Los Angeles. But perhaps a greater effort needs to be made so that more people are aware of what is available to them to help them cope with this kind of crisis.

Perhaps it wouldn't have helped this family. Perhaps it would have. That is something we may never know for sure.

The Bottom Line

I seem to be spending a lot of time at these days — which might not be a good thing for my morale, since the economic news hasn't been good.

Of course, for that matter, when was the last time the economic news was good?

This evening, Jeanne Sahadi, senior writer for, is reporting that the Congressional Budget Office has calculated (at the request of House Republicans) that "[t]he long-term cost of the $825 billion economic recovery package before Congress could rise to $1.2 trillion over 10 years."

For most of us, a figure that rises into the trillions is simply beyond comprehension.

Conservative Michelle Malkin calls it "stimulus you can't afford."

Well, if anyone has an alternative to the package that's being proposed, I'd like to hear it. So would a lot of other people, I imagine.

Realistically, what choice do we have?

That figure is the cost of the stimulus plan plus interest. I'm no economist, and I'll admit that it's not a pleasant situation, but I have a simple question. What's the cost of not doing anything?

Not just in terms of dollars but in terms of the impact on people's lives.

It seems to me that, in my history studies, I learned that Herbert Hoover and the Republicans essentially did nothing because they believed the economy would right itself and they didn't want to interfere.

So things got worse. And, in 1933, Nero — I mean, Hoover — turned over an economy to Franklin D. Roosevelt that was already mired in the early years of the Great Depression. It took the rest of that decade — and the outbreak of World War II — to bring the nation out of the depths of economic despair.

If, when next month's new jobless claims are calculated, we find out that the economy is continuing its recent trend and sheds another half million jobs, the number of people who have lost their jobs in the last year will exceed 3 million. And, without an economic stimulus package, how many more will lose their jobs before things finally start to turn around?

I realize that $1.2 trillion is a lot of money — but it seems to me that the Bush administration tried to do a lot of things on the cheap. The Bush administration assured Americans all the while that the war in Iraq could be won quickly and that it would mostly be paid for by the revenue from the oil fields in that country. Bush even made a dramatic landing on the USS Abraham Lincoln and made a speech to the sailors beneath a banner reading "Mission Accomplished" nearly six years ago.

It was even suggested that the oil revenue would generate a surplus for the American economy. The Iraqi people would throw flowers at our feet, we were told.

Instead, what do we have? Was the mission really accomplished? Did we get that surplus? Were flowers thrown at our feet?

No. As a matter of fact, we have, as my friend Kyle observes in his therapy malaria blog, a war that has consumed nearly $600 trillion. "Where does that money go?" asks Kyle. "To contractors with no oversight on whether they deliver or not, weapons manufacturers, constant construction of places we destroyed, and corporate executives of the above."

And, during Bush's last visit to Iraq, instead of having flowers thrown at his feet, a journalist threw shoes at his head.

The issue before us today is what can be done to hasten the time when the recovery is under way, when those who are unemployed can get jobs again, when those who are facing the loss of their homes can feel secure under their own roofs again.

If there are elements of the plan that should be scrapped and some money can be saved, by all means, let's hear a reasonable explanation — not a kneejerk reaction. Congress needs to be involved in this from the start. It needs to fulfill its constitutional duty — not march in mindless lockstep behind the president, as it did for so much of the Bush administration.

Time is certainly of the essence, but both Democrats and Republicans need to study the proposal and suggest logical changes if they have them to suggest. The taxpayers have paid for enough pork. There have been enough bridges to nowhere.

Let's not get mired in partisan debate. Let's remember that we're all on the same side, and let's have constructive discussions with one goal in mind — to end the recession.

That's the real bottom line.

More Body Blows

Each day seems to bring more bad news.

Today, is reporting that consumer confidence is at an all-time low.

"The month's reading represents an all-time low going back to the index's inception in 1967," writes Catherine Clifford.

The finding apparently comes as something of a surprise when compared to expectations expressed in a consensus survey of economists. Clifford writes that the economists believed the index would increase from December's reading.

I guess that optimistic outlook was inspired, at least in part, by the fact that Americans apparently overwhelmingly approve of Barack Obama, giving him the second-highest initial approval rating of any president elected to his first term in office since Gallup began measuring it.

High initial approval ratings do not mean that the president's administration will live up to the lofty expectations, of course. Jimmy Carter enjoyed nearly as high ratings when he took office in 1977, only to be turned out by the voters four years later.

But it's a good start for Obama. It shows that most Americans want him to succeed. Maybe they want him to succeed for selfish reasons. But they're pulling for him in numbers that many freshly elected presidents do not enjoy.

Still, as the consumer confidence index shows, there is a crisis of confidence in the land. I know how hard it is to take on the challenges that each day brings. In fact, I wrote about that — in a way &mdash in my Birth of a Notion blog earlier today (and, incidentally, if you read that blog earlier, you may have missed a second video clip that I added to it — and I urge you to watch it because it is, indeed, inspirational).

It's not my intention to give a pep talk here. But, in writing that particular piece, I think — well, I hope — I learned some things, and I hope I expressed them in a way that may help others who are losing confidence.

I don't have the answer for unemployment. I wish I did. And I don't have the answer for those who are struggling to keep their homes. I wish I did.

It is said that faith is believing in things unseen. I guess it's only natural for human beings to want to see something before they can believe in it.

But before the economy can turn around, consumers must find the confidence within themselves to face whatever comes without fear, without panic, without self-doubt. The president can't do that for you. Nor can the Congress do it for you.

The obstacles may be numerous. The road may be long. But things aren't going to get appreciably better until that happens.

My sincere best wishes to all who are struggling at this time.

Mounting Pressure

A mere week ago, Barack Obama took the oath of office and became the 44th president.

It was unrealistic for anyone to expect immediate change as a result — although he did take several steps in his first few days that were "logical," as the therapy malaria blog observed recently.

Nevertheless, for the unemployed or for those who have lost their homes, change can't come soon enough. The pressure continues to build on the jobless and the homeless. Even those who still have their jobs or still have their homes can feel a certain amount of pressure.

The wolf is at the door.

When he was running for president in 1980, Ronald Reagan liked to say that "Depression is when you're out of work. A recession is when your neighbor's out of work. Recovery is when Carter's out of work." It was a nice play on words that supported Reagan's political philosophy at the time.

Reagan, like Obama, combined his personal popularity with the unpopularity of his opponent and his opponent's party and rode the wave to the White House, where he continued to enjoy residual popularity for awhile. Eventually, by the time he left office and certainly by the time of his death in 2004, he was regarded by most historians as a successful president, but in his first few years in office, his popularity began to wane as those who struggled in the recession of that time saw no change in their own condition.

Before he had been in office for a full year, Reagan's approval rating dipped below 50% and it remained there for the next two years, which included the period surrounding the midterm elections of 1982 (when Reagan famously urged voters to "Stay the course"). The Republicans managed to gain a Senate seat but lost more than two dozen House seats in that midterm election.

Twenty-eight years later, Obama showed a similar gift with words when he told his listeners, following his (at the time) surprising loss in the New Hampshire primary, "We have been told we cannot do this by a chorus of cynics who will only grow louder and more dissonant in the weeks to come."

The primary, he said, was a "reality check." He and his campaign, Obama asserted, had been "warned against offering the people of this nation false hope. But in the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope." He went on to rally the faithful with his now famous slogan, "Yes, we can."

Obama made a similar point while telling a story about a stop he made at a diner where he had been told that tasty pies were available. While he was there, he said, the employees told him they wanted to get a picture of him to tease the owner because the owner was a diehard Republican.

When the owner came out with the pies, Obama said to him, "Sir, I understand that you are a diehard Republican."

The owner said, "That's right."

Obama said, "How's business?"

The owner said, "Not so good. My customers, they can't afford to eat out anymore."

Obama said, "Who's been in charge of the economy for the last eight years?"

The owner said, "Republicans."

Obama said, "You know, if you kept on hitting your head against a wall over and over again and it started to hurt, at some point would you stop hitting your head against the wall?"

Those are the words that one can say from the outside, where one does not carry the responsibilities of the office. Now the job is his, and the "chorus of cynics" likely will become deafening.

Only yesterday, seven companies announced layoffs that will put more than 70,000 people out of work, bringing the total for the first month of 2009 to over 200,000 — and when new jobless claims are announced next month, the news is likely to be worse. Of course, Obama hasn't been president for the whole month. But that's a technicality for the unemployed.

Obama's critics on the right are feeling compelled to defend and assert themselves. Conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh said Obama was "frightened of me" after coming under fire for saying that he wanted the new administration to fail.

"My attitude is that, if the economy's good for folks from the bottom up, it's gonna be good for everybody," Obama said during the general election campaign.

Sounds a lot like the "rising tide lifts all boats" rhetoric that was used to support Reagan's supply-side economics plan in the 1980s — which is also known as the "trickle-down theory."

Back in the 1980s, things didn't seem to "trickle down" fast enough — if they trickled down at all.

Jesse Jackson, who mounted two unsuccessful campaigns for the Democratic nomination in the 1980s, criticized that rhetoric in his speech to the Democratic convention in 1984. "A rising tide doesn't lift all boats," he said. For the boats stuck at the bottom, in the mud and the muck, he said, there was what the government blithely called a "misery index" that could calculate how much of a struggle it was to pay the landlord or even put food on the table.

Ask an economist what the "bottom line" is, and you'll likely get an answer with a lot of numbers, but you won't see the human faces behind it.

Those faces are there, but they're strained.

The wolf is at the door.

Monday, January 26, 2009

An Unemployment 'Bloodbath'

Julianne Pepitone writes, at, that the final week of January began with a "bloodbath for the job market."

As you may have heard, seven companies announced job cuts today that add up to 71,400 jobs.

More than 200,000 jobs have been lost since the first day of 2009, Pepitone reports. And, just to remind people that this isn't a recent phenomenon, she adds, "Nearly 2.6 million jobs were lost over 2008, the highest yearly job-loss total since 1945."

Pepitone quotes Robert Brusca, chief economist at Fact and Opinion Economics, as observing, "It's all about the consumer, and the consumer's been hit hard."

Meanwhile, the fallout over the revelation that Citigroup is spending $50 million on a new jet continues in the blogosphere.
  • It's "plane stupid," Gateway Pundit writes.

  • The Swamp says Citigroup "hits turbulence" and recommends that Citigroup's executives should "get your crisis-management people cranked up."

  • The Washington Independent observes that "it looks like at least one bank is finding a way to spend that TARP money."

  • DealBook speculates that "Citigroup could be in some hot water."

  • Wall $treet Folly wonders, "How long before Citigroup has its wings clipped and is shamed into selling their brand new corporate jet?"

  • "Congratulations, taxpayers," says Right Voices. "You just bought Citigroup a brand-new $50 million corporate jet."

  • Blogging Broker just wants the "plane truth" and says that "if you give an executive a GOLDEN PARACHUTE … he will need a nice new corporate jet to bail out of."

  • "What a pretty jet, Citigroup," says RedState. "I'll be needing it next week. After all, you bought it with my tax money."

  • "Did Citigroup fire its public-relations department when it laid off those 50,000 people a few months ago?" wonders Daily Intel, which proceeds to offer a little advice because "no one seems to be managing their image."
It isn't good P.R., to say the least.

And it isn't only bloggers who are expressing their dismay. The Detroit Free Press says Michigan Sen. Carl Levin is "beside himself ... considering that when the heads of Detroit's automakers came to Washington in private jets to ask for aid they got blasted for it."

There's bound to be more in the days ahead. Stay tuned.

It's a Bird ... No, It's a Plane Outrage

I guess this sort of ties in with what I wrote earlier today in this blog.

Although, actually, I guess it really ties in better with what I wrote on Saturday.

I heard about this a little while ago. And I'm so angry about it that I'm literally shaking.

The New York Post — and probably others, although that's the only report I've read so far — is reporting that Citigroup — which, I regret to say, is a company for whom I worked for several years (through one of its subsidiary companies) — is using $50 million of its bailout money to buy a new jet.

The Post's Jennifer Gould Keil and Chuck Bennett summarize it this way in their lead paragraph: "Beleaguered Citigroup is upgrading its mile-high club with a brand-new $50 million corporate jet — only this time, it's the taxpayers who are getting screwed."

I guess, if there's anything good to say about this, it's that some talented wags are getting the chance to show off their linguistic skills with some clever wordplay.

To be fair, the order for the jet was probably submitted a couple of years ago — before the recession. But in the current environment, the best thing to do would be to back out of the contract and swallow any losses that result.

I don't know if there's much I can add to what the Post said about it.

There is, however, one thought that's been going through my mind. Next Tuesday will be the 50th anniversary of the plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the "Big Bopper" in an event that was dubbed "the day the music died" by Don McLean (as I mentioned in this blog on Saturday).

Just to briefly recap a little known part of the story ... Waylon Jennings, who went on to a legendary career in country music before his death in 2002, was one of Holly's musicians. He gave his seat on the plane to the "Big Bopper" because the "Bopper" was developing a case of the flu and didn't want to ride in the bus that was carrying the rest of Holly's entourage.

When Holly found out that Jennings would not be riding on the plane, he said to him, in jest, "Well, I hope your ol' bus freezes up." Jennings replied, "Well, I hope your ol' plane crashes."

Jennings admitted that he was haunted by that exchange for many years after the tragedy.

But I'll say this. If there is any poetic justice in the world, the bigshots at Citigroup will be flying in their plane in the vicinity of Clear Lake, Iowa, on that anniversary.

At night.

In an ice storm.

With a pilot who has trouble flying at night.

Preferably while the bigshots are dining on filet mignon and lobster tail — on the taxpayers' tab.

If that happens, I might, like Jennings, feel a little guilty. But, if I have to endure a few sleepless nights because of it, that's a price I'll pay — if I have to.

And my advice to the air traffic control people is this: If the Citigroup plane is overdue, don't bother sending out a search and rescue party until daylight.

No sense in risking innocent lives.

Brace Yourself

When I was a teenager, I remember listening to some of Bill Cosby's comedy albums. On one album — the rest of his monologue escapes me at the moment — he told his listeners, "Never say that things can't get any worse. Because that's when the gremlins say, 'Worse!'"

With that in mind, I recommend a special report by David Goldman at I feel compelled to warn you, though, that what he has to say is not too uplifting.

But what the hell? It's a Monday. Who expects good news on a Monday?

As the Carpenters used to sing, "Rainy days and Mondays always get me down." And today, in Dallas, Texas, we happen to have both. Sort of a double whammy, you might say.

Anyway, back to Goldman's piece.

He says a survey of economists reveals that most are expecting the recession to get worse than it already is the farther we go into 2009.

"Companies will lay off more workers and hoard more cash during the next 12 months," he quotes from the results of a survey of the National Association for Business Economics (NABE). "A vast majority of the 105 economists polled believe the country's gross domestic product will continue to sink in 2009."

NABE began this survey in 1982. I graduated from college that year, in the midst of what was a roaring recession, and I felt fortunate at that time to even get a job, even though it didn't pay too much. I guess, these days, there are many who will take just about any job, even if it doesn't pay as much as they would like.
Nearly half — 47% — of surveyed economists said overall industry demand was falling, compared with 35% who said so in the October survey. Just 10% of respondents said profit margins were rising, compared with 52% who believe they are falling. And 38% of economists said capital expenses are falling, up from just 15% in October.

Nearly 40% of economists think their industries will lay off workers in the next six months, Goldman reports. That's up from 32% in October. And the "goods-producing sector" has a "particularly poor" outlook, Goldman says. In that area (which seems somewhat vague to me), nearly seven of 10 economists anticipate layoffs.

In general, Goldman says, less than one-quarter of economists (closer to one-fifth, actually) believe the economy will expand this year. More than 60% thought it would expand back in October.

Well, there is more, if you care to read it.

If you still have your job, though, do whatever you can to keep it. Come in early. Stay late. Eat lunch at your desk. Volunteer for additional duty. Make yourself vital.

Even that may not be enough. But it's the best advice I can give.

Unfortunately, for the unemployed, there doesn't seem to be much to say except keep looking, keep applying.

And, if you still have any faith left, keep praying. It can't hurt.

Just don't say, "Things can't get any worse."

Yes, they can.

P.S. to my readers: Since this was written a few hours ago, the Wall Street Journal mentioned this blog as one of the blogs referring to the NABE survey.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

A Global Milestone

I guess I'm becoming more sensitive to milestones these days — not because I've been observing significant milestones in my own life, but more because I've been getting re-connected with many old and cherished friends in recent days and I've been learning of the milestones they've marked in the years that have passed since I last saw them.

Perhaps I'm just musing a little, but please bear with me because there is a certain method to my madness.

Today is the 90th anniversary of an event that turned out to have little positive importance in its own time but has had great ramifications since and may play a key role in the future of the world.

I am speaking about the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, which was the meeting of the allies after World War I. During that meeting, the allies made decisions that they wanted to shape the conditions in which the people of the world lived for the remainder of the 20th century — and, they hoped, beyond.

The United States, France and Great Britain were the leaders of the postwar initiative, but dozens of countries sent representatives to the conference with hundreds of issues to discuss (in fact, the deliberations may have influenced the fight for women's suffrage in America because women's rights was one of the many topics on the agenda). The conference went on for six months, but it was on this day 90 years ago that the conference approved President Woodrow Wilson's proposal for the League of Nations.

Wilson's name is associated with the League, but the idea originated more than a century earlier, when German philosopher Immanuel Kant outlined it in "Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch." In hindsight, that's somewhat ironic because perhaps the most significant outcome of the conference was that Germany was severely punished for its role in starting the war — and it was the hardship that was placed on the German people, as a result, that made it possible for Adolf Hitler to rise to power, eventually leading to the outbreak of World War II.

The League of Nations was the victim of politics back in the United States. Wilson made many compromises during the Paris Peace Conference, but he deeply believed in the objectives of the League. In what was a virtually unprecedented move by an American president, Wilson went to Paris himself, and he emerged from the conference having won its approval for the establishment of a League of Nations. He lobbied hard for the treaty's passage in the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate, which was (and still is) required to give its stamp of approval to treaties.

That reminds me of a story. One of Wilson's chief foes in the Senate was Henry Cabot Lodge, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. When Wilson insisted on personally delivering the Treaty of Versailles to the Senate, he was greeted by Lodge, who asked him if he could take the treaty in to the Senate body for him. Wilson replied, "Not on your life, senator!"

Because of the opposition he encountered in the Senate, Wilson set out on a physically demanding cross-country speaking trip to rally support for the treaty among the people. It is believed by many that this brought on the stroke that physically incapacitated him for the remainder of his term — although, to be fair, it has been speculated that Wilson suffered a series of "mini strokes" before and after that time that went undetected because of the absence of adequate technology for that purpose.

The Senate rejected the treaty, preventing the United States' entry into the League. The League proceeded, anyway, but that defeat in the United States made it much weaker than Wilson envisioned. The goals of the Paris Peace Conference were noble. The intentions were good. But without the United States, the League of Nations was unable to prevent the rise of Nazi Germany in the 1930s — and the deaths of tens of millions around the world.

After World War II, the concept was revisited and became the modern-day United Nations. Nearly 200 countries are members today, and it continues to play an important role in international relations more than 60 years after its establishment.

Actually, this gives me an opportunity to make an observation that I think would be beneficial to the new president. Wilson was the first Democrat to be re-elected president in nearly 85 years (and only two, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Bill Clinton, have been re-elected since), largely because he had kept the nation out of war in his first term. It is said that, during Cabinet meetings, he did not take the role of the boss. He was more like the first among equals and listened to what everyone had to say, even when it conflicted with his personal beliefs.

Perhaps that was due to his experience in academics, where he presided over countless faculty meetings — he was governor of New Jersey when he won the presidency but he served for many years as president of Princeton prior to that.

In many ways, Wilson set an example that Barack Obama will be wise to follow. I know the new president has a great deal of respect and reverence for history, and his admiration for Abraham Lincoln has been well documented. But there are valuable lessons he can learn from other predecessors as well.

Wilson was seen by many as charming on a personal level but something of a cold fish on a public level. In spite of his shortcomings, he set an example every president, from the current occupant of the Oval Office to his future successors, should emulate.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Starry Night

"For they could not love you
But still your love was true
And when no hope was left inside
On that starry, starry night,
You took your life as lovers often do.
But I could have told you, Vincent,
This world was never meant for one
As beautiful as you."

Don McLean

Today, I want to ask for my readers' indulgence while I deal, as writers do, with some persistent thoughts in my head.

For some reason, lately I've been thinking about Vincent Van Gogh, although this isn't the anniversary of either his birth or his tragic suicide at the age of 37.

Maybe it's the bleakness of the times. I'm not immune to that, and I've had my share of troubles in recent years.

Perhaps it's the influence of my mother. She's been dead for more than 13 years now, but she is never far from my thoughts. And recently I built a memorial website for her. So, after spending a great deal of time scanning her pictures and working on the text for the site, many thoughts, some of them apparently long repressed, have been swirling in my mind.

One such thought has been of folk rock songwriter Don McLean's song, "Vincent," which was written in the early 1970s and appeared on the album "American Pie."

The title song from that album, with its familiar line, "Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry," was a huge hit, and many people have written about its meaning. It was inspired by the plane crash almost 50 years ago that took the lives of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and "The Big Bopper" — an event that McLean dubbed "the day the music died."

That plane crash came during a formative time for McLean. He had just turned 13 a few months earlier, and Holly died when he was only 22 and his popularity was blossoming. I wasn't born until later that year, but to the people of that time, it was a brutal event from which no positive lessons could be taken — although perhaps the crash provided some valuable information about flying in poor weather conditions for people in the aviation industry. Investigators blamed the weather, along with possible pilot error, for the crash.

For his part, McLean has left analyses of the song to others. "[L]ong ago I realized that songwriters should make their statements and move on, maintaining a dignified silence," he once said.

But I've never associated the "American Pie" album with either the plane crash or the album's title song. Whenever I think of that album, I think of my mother, who bought it primarily because of "Vincent." At first, she didn't know the actual name of the song. She thought the name was its opening line, "Starry, starry night," which is taken from the name of one of Van Gogh's paintings (you can see it above).

One need only listen to that song once to realize the depth of McLean's admiration for the often deeply disturbed Van Gogh, who achieved recognition as an artist only after his suicide in 1890. Over and over, the lines in the song refer to Van Gogh's paintings, especially his self-portraits, whether they were acknowledged as such or not.

Frequently in the song, McLean talks about how Van Gogh was misunderstood during his life.

"Now I understand
What you tried to say to me
And how you suffered for your sanity
And how you tried to set them free.
They would not listen,
They did not know how.
Perhaps they'll listen now."

Yet, by the end of the song, McLean's expression of hope that Van Gogh would ultimately be accepted for the genius that he was yields to the tragic acceptance that must have gripped the anguished artist in the end.

"Now I think I know
What you tried to say to me
How you suffered for your sanity
And how you tried to set them free.
They would not listen
They're not listening still
Perhaps they never will."

Van Gogh's wasn't the only creative mind that struggled with the demons that tormented it. I've written in another blog of the death of Edgar Allan Poe, which remains as mysterious as the classic tales he wrote. Some have suggested that, like Van Gogh, he took his own life.

Whether Poe, like Van Gogh, committed suicide probably never will be known. But if he did, then, clearly, both men found it impossible to persevere through the pain and hardship they faced.

And perhaps that's a cautionary tale for us in our times. In the current recession, which, more and more, is being seen as the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, millions who do not possess the creative talents of Poe and Van Gogh are struggling against conditions that are not of their making, that are beyond their comprehension, and there is no telling how many are losing hope with each passing day.

Many of these people feel that they are slipping through the cracks of society. The decent, humane thing for our government to do is to focus on ways to help, by extending unemployment benefits or making it easier to get financial assistance so families can stay in their homes or whatever it takes.

I know this may add to the national debt, and there are some lawmakers who will resist. But if the government can come up with the funds to bail out big industries and corporations that can still afford to fly their top lobbyists to Washington in private luxury jets, surely it can find the funds to help the least of these.

Friday, January 23, 2009

New York's Newest Senator

Well, perhaps now we'll see which is more important to feminists, especially those in New York — gender or philosophy.

Gov. David Paterson, who no longer had the option of choosing Caroline Kennedy to become Hillary Clinton's replacement in the U.S. Senate, has picked Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand, 42, to fill the vacancy.

Almost immediately after Barack Obama nominated Clinton to be his secretary of state, female political activists made it known that if a woman was not picked to replace her, it would not be acceptable.

Well, they've got what they wanted. Or have they?

As far as gender is concerned, Gillibrand is just what the doctor ordered. But Gillibrand, who represents the upstate district that includes Albany, may not have the philosophical credentials that New York's female activists want. She is a Democrat, which means the balance of power in the Senate will not be altered, but she worked, at one time, for former Republican Sen. Alfonse D'Amato, who is certainly no friend of Clinton.

At one time, New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo was mentioned as one of Clinton's possible successors, but feminists objected on the grounds that he was the wrong gender. However, the selection could be seen as more than merely a rejection of Cuomo. Gillibrand's father had ties to George Pataki, the man who unseated Cuomo's father as governor in 1994.

Gillibrand's congressional record is thin — she was just elected to the House in 2006, after launching what appeared to be a longshot bid to unseat four-term Republican incumbent John Sweeney. Sweeney had been considered a rising star in New York politics, but wound up being defeated after revelations that tied him to first the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal and then to allegations of spouse abuse.

She is considered a member of the "Blue Dog Coalition," which is considered the philosophical descendant of the famous "Boll Weevils," whose support helped Ronald Reagan enact his tax cut plan.

Gillibrand was handily re-elected in November with 69% of the vote. In the past, her district (which has undergone frequent redistricting as the state has lost population) has been represented by some illustrious names — Republican Fiorello H. LaGuardia and Democrats Franklin D. Roosevelt Jr. and Bella Abzug.

She is an opponent of gun control, although liberals may find some comfort in the fact that she has been a supporter of same-sex marriage and stem cell research.

Gillibrand has the backing of the National Rifle Association (NRA), which, as the New York Post points out, has many Democrats hopping mad — even though Sen. Charles Schumer apparently supports her selection, feeling that an upstater was needed.

Perhaps the most damning indictment of the selection came from the Post's Jacob Gershman, who says that Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, now facing the prospect of being removed from office, did a better job in picking Obama's replacement.

During last year's general election campaign, after John McCain had chosen Sarah Palin to be his running mate, many, including myself, believed it was a transparent bid to attract the votes of disgruntled Clinton supporters. The results confirmed that the choice of any woman was not sufficient, and that political philosophy was more important. Most of Clinton's supporters appear to have voted for Obama, in spite of their disappointment.

Although I do not live in New York — and, technically, my preference, or the preference of any non-New Yorker, has no relevance when it comes to choosing who represents New York in Congress — my position has been that, in such a case, when a governor must nominate the replacement for a senator who has been selected for a Cabinet post or a Supreme Court position or something else, the nominee should have the same political views as the person he/she is replacing because that's what the voters chose in the most recent election.

New Yorkers chose Clinton to represent them in the Senate. They are entitled to be represented by someone who shares her views on the issues.

The nomination of Gillibrand, it seems to me, will provide a true test. Like Clinton, Gillibrand is a woman, but do her beliefs mirror the woman she is replacing?

In hindsight, perhaps Cuomo, who served in Bill Clinton's Cabinet and is married to one of Robert F. Kennedy's daughters, doesn't look so bad.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Modern Marvels

Today, I want to express a few personal thoughts about modern technology.

I'll be the first to admit that I don't know everything I should about today's technology. I have friends who do, and when I have questions I turn to them for answers. Sometimes they have them. And sometimes they don't.

Yesterday, I experienced some problems accessing some of the websites that I like to access. And I kept trying to post a comment on a friend's blog, but he never received it. I spoke, via e-mail, with one of my friends who frequently has the answers I need. He told me that web servers have been under a lot of stress lately. Perhaps (and this is my speculation, not his) it has something to do with all the internet traffic that surrounded the inauguration on Tuesday.

Today those problems seem to have cleared up. But it underscores a point I want to make.

Modern technology is not perfect. But it makes so many things possible today that weren't possible even a few years ago.

For example, my father, my brother and I were all devastated when my mother died in a flash flood in 1995. At that time, the internet was still in its infancy — if one were to go back in time and look at what was available then and compare it to what is available today, I think the word "primitive" would come to mind.

And, when the year 2022 rolls around, what is available today will seem just as primitive to people of that time.

My mother never had personal e-mail to use to contact faraway friends. She did have a fax machine, and she used it all the time to send messages to local friends — and she sometimes faxed messages to me. I lived about 200 miles away from her and, at the time, I also had a fax machine.

I know she would have loved e-mail. She liked to compare faxing to "passing notes in school." Today, I suppose the paperless approach has entered the classroom and, instead of passing notes, today's students "text" one another.

But I digress.

As I say, when my mother died, it was a devastating experience for my family. I didn't have an internet connection at the time and, while I did have a computer that I used for some word processing tasks, I still prepared most of my personal documents on an electric typewriter. I couldn't send e-mails to distant friends or search the internet to locate friends with whom I had lost touch. And I certainly couldn't use the internet as an outlet for my grief.

I think I went online the following year, and I found something of an outlet for my lingering grief in chatrooms, conversing with strangers. That helped, but it left a residue of grief that never had an outlet — until recently, when I began to explore the possibility of creating a memorial website to my mother.

I found a host that provides free webspace for such a memorial. It allows me to post pictures and write my thoughts. I can share the link with friends and family members, and it gives them a place to go to see my mother's pictures and reflect on their own memories of how she influenced their lives. They can sign a guestbook. They can even contribute their own pictures.

It was an emotional experience for me, but I know that creating that website has had a cleansing influence on me. And, from the feedback I've received from others, it has had the same influence on them. One of my dear friends, Liebe, looked upon my mother as a mother figure of her own. When she had seen the site, she remarked, "It feels like she just died yesterday." And she said she was glad I had done it because she's been thinking of doing something similar in memory of her father, who died last summer.

That's a way that the internet helps people — beyond giving them a convenient place to shop or look for jobs or a place to live (or, in its less admirable mode, as a provider of pornography).

Another recent discovery is the Facebook website. An old friend of mine recommended it to me by e-mail, so I signed up for it and was amazed at how many people saw my name and contacted me. It has re-connected me with many old friends in just a few days. I had heard of Facebook before, but I tended to dismiss it as a social and dating site. I've been pleasantly surprised to discover that it is much more than that.

I'm not a particularly religious person, but I have to say that I feel richly blessed to have these friends back in my life. And it is something that probably never would have been possible if not for the internet.

When my father (who is 79 now) first decided to go online a dozen years ago, I told him that the internet's websites were like a bookstore. You will find shelves and shelves of books in a bookstore, I told him, and, although much of it is not worth your time or money, there are a few nuggets that are worth finding if you look hard enough.

My recent experiences confirm that I was right.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Hillary's In, Caroline's Out

As you may have heard by now, Hillary Clinton has been confirmed as secretary of state by the Senate. The vote was 94-2.

And, in a late-breaking development, Caroline Kennedy has withdrawn her name from those New York Gov. David Paterson apparently has been considering for Clinton's replacement.

Kennedy, it is being said, has expressed her concerns about the health of her uncle, Sen. Edward Kennedy, who suffered a seizure during Tuesday's inaugural proceedings. Her uncle's health, it is said, is her top priority, and she apparently feels she could not give him the attention she wanted to provide if she took the Senate seat.

The Great Emancipator

Abraham Lincoln is remembered — and justifiably so — as one of America's greatest presidents, if not the greatest president.

And it will be appropriate for America to recognize next month the 200th anniversary of his birth.

But, on the occasion of the inauguration of the first black president, there seems to be a general misconception about Lincoln. He did not enter the presidency breathing fire and pledging to abolish slavery, as much as people might like to believe that today. He became the "Great Emancipator" a few years later, when he signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

There was much concern in the South about a Lincoln presidency, but, when he took the oath of office and spoke to the people for the first time as president, he sought to reassure the citizens of the South that his overriding desire was to keep the nation intact.

In his first inaugural, Lincoln almost immediately referred to the "apprehension … among the people of the Southern states that by the accession of a Republican administration their property and their peace and personal security are to be endangered."

He said there was no reason for this and cited his own speeches before being elected president as proof:
"I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the states where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so."

Lincoln reminded his listeners that "[t]hose who nominated and elected me did so with full knowledge that I had made this and many similar declarations and had never recanted them."

In fact, Lincoln went on to say, the Republicans included in their platform an "emphatic resolution," which he went on to recite:
"Resolved, That the maintenance inviolate of the rights of the States, and especially the right of each State to order and control its own domestic institutions according to its own judgment exclusively, is essential to that balance of power on which the perfection and endurance of our political fabric depend; and we denounce the lawless invasion by armed force of the soil of any State or Territory, no matter what pretext, as among the gravest of crimes."

The new president repeatedly affirmed his desire to keep the United States together as one nation."The power confided to me will be used to hold, occupy, and possess the property and places belonging to the government and to collect the duties and imposts," he said, "but beyond what may be necessary for these objects, there will be no invasion, no using of force against or among the people anywhere."

Today, Lincoln is remembered for "freeing the slaves," as he should be. But his own words show that, when he first became president, he wanted to keep the nation together — even if that meant an existence that was half-slave and half-free.

The Hard Work Begins

Tuesday may have been the day for poetry. It has given way to the prose.

While President Obama, his family, his friends and his supporters were celebrating in Washington, the stock market lost more than 300 points on Wall Street. Just a little reality check there.

Obama, of course, is not the one who created the economic conditions — he inherited them. And they're his to deal with now. It would be a tough assignment for anyone, and it probably isn't made any easier by the additional pressure he feels, rightly or wrongly, as the first black president.

During the campaign, there were many in the media and the public at large who treated any criticism of Obama as if it were some sort of thinly concealed form of racism when often it was merely the way the game is played. The rules didn't change just because one of the major contestants was black.

In a political campaign, a candidate's words and actions frequently come back to haunt him/her, yet Obama often appeared to get a free ride from those who never seemed to hesitate to slam other candidates in both parties.

I remember a "Saturday Night Live" skit in which a debate questioner grilled Hillary Clinton on the names of foreign leaders. When she failed to answer correctly, the questioner gave her the answer, then turned to Obama and said, "Senator Obama, same question!"

There were relatively few occasions when Obama's statements or policy positions received the kind of intense scrutiny that others' did. Bill Clinton, I recall, was harshly criticized for saying Obama's claims of opposing the Iraq War amounted to a "fairy tale" — although he was right when he said that there was almost no difference between Obama's voting record on the war as a senator and Hillary Clinton's Senate voting record on the same issue during the same time frame.

When Obama entered the Senate, the war was nearly 2 years old. Few, if any, journalists pointed out that Obama did not bear the responsibility for casting a vote in the U.S. Senate when that body addressed the original question of whether to give George W. Bush the authority to invade Iraq. He did not have to weigh the political consequences the way Clinton, John Edwards, even Obama's eventual running mate did.

Now, as president, he must provide leadership on foreign affairs, and that includes the handling of the war. He cannot arbitrarily withdraw all the troops from Iraq and leave that country to the mercy of the terrorists in the region. Does that mean he now supports a war he said he initially opposed? No. It means he comprehends the reality of the situation.

The withdrawal must be done gradually. Iraq must be encouraged to take responsibility for itself. Bush liked to talk about how Iraq became free under his watch, but Iraq will never be truly free until that happens. How it is achieved is now Obama's problem.

He has already taken an important first step in suspending prosecutions at Guantanamo Bay. That's encouraging. But there is so much more that needs to be done.

It is no different with today's economy. Obama enters office facing a situation that is not of his making but nevertheless it is one he must deal with. No truer test of his leadership skills may face him as president than his decisions on that matter. In recent months, the economy has been losing half a million jobs a month, and all indications are that it will continue to be bleak for most of 2009.

Job creation will be a real test of Obama's leadership abilities.

In fact, each day in the Oval Office will be a test for Obama. He will learn there are restrictions in that job, imposed by many sources. That's the way it is in a republic.

Americans can't afford to handle Obama with kid gloves. There are urgent problems facing America today. His diehard supporters must understand that criticism of him is not racist, that people's lives and futures depend on the decisions he makes.

His words in his Inaugural Address implied that he understands that (although, not meaning to quibble, but he was incorrect when he said he was the 44th man to take the oath of office — Grover Cleveland was the 22nd and 24th president, so actually Obama is the 43rd man to be sworn in). His actions will confirm whether he really does.