Thursday, April 30, 2009

Is Obama Really Ulysses S. Grant?

That is the premise of James Pinkerton's article in U.S. News & World Report.

"President Obama might be modeling his presidency after Franklin D. Roosevelt's," writes Pinkerton, "but thus far, he is shaping up less like the 32nd president and more like the 18th, Ulysses S. Grant."

I have to admit, I stopped and puzzled over that statement for awhile.

The heart of the argument can be found in the headline: "Wall Street Crowd Makes His Administration Like Grant's."

And Pinkerton writes of Grant's limited economic vision, thanks to "railroad men and land speculators," and says Obama is restricted by the "once–and–future Wall Streeters who dominate his economic team." Different wardrobes but similar personalities.

The "Grant precedent," as Pinkerton calls it, "isn't all bad." In spite of scandals, Pinkerton writes, Grant won another four years, although the Panic of 1873 struck early in his second term.

To be honest, I wondered if the comparison to Grant might have been based on something else — like the fact that Grant was very supportive of civil rights for a 19th century man. His administration also investigated acts of domestic terrorism committed by the Ku Klux Klan.

But those things have nothing to do with Pinkerton's comparison. Instead, Pinkerton says, "Obama, like Grant before him, is easy prey for the finance–minded sharpies infesting his administration. Nobody's accusing him of any personal foibles, but few accused Grant of personal wrongdoing, either."

I think the sentence contains some assertions — or possible assertions — that do not necessarily go hand in hand. The primary conclusion is that Obama is "easy prey for the finance–minded sharpies infesting his administration." That asks you to conclude that (a) Obama is easy prey for finance–minded sharpies and (b) those "finance–minded sharpies" infest the administration, which is something of a trick since many of the positions at Treasury have not been filled yet.

It isn't necessary to reach both conclusions for the assertion to work — but it helps if you do.

Anyway, when those positions at Treasury are filled, will Obama be vulnerable to the kind of manipulation that Pinkerton suggests?

What do you think? Is the comparison valid?

The Turning Point

I guess you could look upon April 30 as a significant turning point in history, considering the things that have happened on this date.

For example ...
  • On April 30, 1492, Christopher Columbus was given his commission of exploration from Spain. He didn't depart on his historic voyage until August.

  • On April 30, 1789, George Washington was sworn in as the first president of the United States.

  • On April 30, 1803, the United States bought the Louisiana Territory from France.

  • On April 30, 1945, Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun committed suicide in the Führerbunker in Berlin, one day after they were married.

  • On April 30, 1973, President Richard Nixon announced that White House aides H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman had resigned because of the Watergate revelations. Nearly a year later to the day, Nixon announced the release of edited transcripts of his subpoenaed tapes.

  • On April 30, 1975, Communist forces seized Saigon in Vietnam, and American newscasts carried footage of South Vietnamese citizens trying to climb on board an American helicopter during the evacuation.
A lot has happened on April 30, and the tradition may be continuing with the outbreak of swine flu expanding to 11 states.

A Big Tent?

Earlier this week, when Arlen Specter announced he was switching parties, he referred, in his statement, to his election to the Senate in 1980 as part of Ronald Reagan's "big tent" Republican Party.

But in the nearly three decades that have passed, more and more people have felt they were being pushed out of the big tent. And, today, the "big tent" more closely resembles a pup tent.

Specter's switch seems to be a wake–up call for people like David Frum, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush.

In The Week, Frum offers suggestions for rebuilding the Republican Party.

He starts out by making a perfectly valid point about the diminishing presence of Republican office–holders in the Northeast.

There was a time when places like Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine were GOP strongholds. Vermont and Maine, in fact, were the only two states to vote against Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt all four times he ran for president. But now, in large part because of the intolerance for opposing viewpoints within the Republican Party, it "retains a minimal presence" in that part of the country.

"It's not like we have so many votes that we can afford to throw them away," Frum cautions. "And yet, some Republicans responded to the defection this week of Senator Arlen Specter by saying: 'Good riddance — don't let the door hit you on the way out.' Others say they would prefer a Republican caucus of 30 principled conservatives in the Senate to a less ideologically pure 40–vote, center–right coalition."

Frum advocates a return to the "big tent," recommending that Republicans "stop eating our own" by running conservative challengers against centrist incumbents in party primaries. It has been suggested by many, including Frum, that this was, to a great extent, responsible for Specter's switch to the Democratic Party, and it's hard to argue with that, given the tough challenge Specter faced from the right in his last campaign — and appeared likely to face next year.

Frum also believes the party must "find some way to make internal peace on the abortion issue."

The party's national platform may always oppose abortion, and most of its nominees may be against it as well. A fairly large segment of the public opposes it and probably always will. But an equally large segment of the public recognizes that abortions will happen, and it is preferable for them to be performed by trained medical professionals in sterile conditions.

It is also preferable for young women who are considering the procedure to have the benefit of counseling — all of which supports the wisdom of Bill Clinton's belief that abortion should "safe, legal and rare."

And it makes sense from a political perspective. "By penalizing pro–choice candidates, Republicans are not only making their party increasingly unelectable in the present, they are repelling the very people who might help restore electability in the future," Frum writes.

Republicans aren't the only ones who have had to wrestle with doctrinaire conflicts. When Clinton was first nominated in 1992, Pennsylvania's Gov. Bob Casey was not allowed to speak at the Democratic convention. Casey claimed it was because of his pro–life views. Organizers said it was because he had not publicly endorsed the Clinton–Gore ticket, even though others who had not endorsed the ticket, including other pro–life Democrats, were allowed to speak.

Those speakers, however, did not focus on abortion when giving their remarks. Casey made no secret of his desire to give a minority plank on abortion and claimed he was being censored for his views.

Frum also argues that "politicians have to be allowed some leeway to vote the interests of their constituencies."

Clearly, each state and each region has unique needs and interests.

"I've never heard anyone derided as a 'Republican In Name Only' for opposing the closing of redundant military bases, or for supporting Medicaid reimbursement formulas that favor the South and West at the expense of the Northeast and California, or for favoring lavish FEMA reconstruction projects after hurricanes and tornadoes," Frum writes. "Why not apply equal latitude to other regional concerns?"

Frum says he wants to see the Republicans build a national consensus. "Right now, I fear, the Republican mood is not conducive to party building. It's a mandate for party shrinkage. Our current demand, to paraphrase P.G. Wodehouse, is for 'fewer and better Republicans.' Better is always nice. But in democratic politics, quality is no substitute for quantity."

Frum makes fair points, and they are ones the Republican Party must consider if it wishes to be an active participant in discussions of the national direction.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Can We Cut the Breathless Fawning Now?

Well, we've finally made it through Barack Obama's first 100 days.

I don't know how you feel about it, but I'm relieved to have it over with. It often seems like that's all I've been hearing about lately. Indeed, for about a month, the company for whom I do some freelance writing has been bombing my e–mail inbox trying to get me to write a — presumably — positive piece about the new administration's policies.

As if there was a shortage of such articles these days.

The catch was that I couldn't write about the economy.

Well, excuse me for not feeling overly optimistic lately, but I've been out of work for eight months. I understand that we need to allow sufficient time to see the upside of Obama's policies — and I understand the stimulus package was intended to do much more than create jobs — but I admit that I'm biased.

But then, just a few minutes ago, I received another e–mail from the online company asking me if I would write an article expressing how I was "starting to see the light at the end of the proverbial tunnel."

They wanted details — "How exactly are you seeing recovery in your own life? Is it your 401(k)? Did you find more work? Did you find work, period? Are you increasing your consumer spending? What about home improvements? Any major purchases?"

Just one problem. I'm not seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. What was I supposed to write? "Well, I managed to find enough job openings that I'm qualified for to make the minimum number of applications to receive my unemployment benefits for the week ..."

It's an employers' market out there these days. Too many people trying to get the same job. For job seekers, it's hard to feel optimistic when this country loses more than half a million jobs each month. Things can't be getting better if more people are competing for the same number of jobs, right?

Is there any evidence of jobs being created, thanks to the stimulus package? Not theories. Actual figures. Doesn't have to be much. Just something to pin our hopes on.

This is a frustrating time for me, and one of the things I find most frustrating is something like the spectacle of CNN urging its viewers to visit the CNN website and cast their votes on the Senate, the economy, the Treasury secretary, etc.

Even if you don't put much stock in polls, you'd have to be living under a rock not to know how the majority of people have been responding to similar questions. The results tended to echo the findings of other surveys — frankly, most of the responses came as no surprise. And some things never change. The online poll indicated that most voters gave their own senators a grade in the B–C range, leaning more toward the Cs — nothing too extreme in either direction.

Seems like Congress has been getting low marks from people as long as I've been alive. Doesn't this disdain for Congress — regardless of which party happens to hold the majority — seem like a real "dog bites man" story? When the man bites the dog — or, in this case, when the people like the job Congress is doing — then you'll have a story.

This poll also produced some conflicting findings. The administration's handling of the economy got pretty high ratings, but the Treasury secretary got a mediocre grade. Is that some sort of commentary on the fact that so many of Treasury's positions remain unfilled? Or is it strictly a commentary on Tim Geithner himself?

Perhaps the most frustrating part of living in Obama's America is how fawning his supporters are. How unwilling many of them seem to be to listen to anything even remotely critical of "Mr. Cool," as one of his adoring acolytes, Susan Estrich, calls him.

Estrich, as you may know, was the campaign manager for Michael Dukakis' presidential campaign in 1988. That's the same Michael Dukakis who thought he would look presidential riding around in a tank — but managed to come off looking anything but presidential. That image has become so notorious that today the phrase "Dukakis in a tank" conjures up an image of the worst possible public relations disaster.

I don't know if Estrich had anything to do with that particular event. If she did, she is the last person who needs to be lecturing the rest of us about how to perceive a president.

"Maybe the most impressive thing about this president," Estrich gushes, "is just how cool he is."

Yes, ma'am, that's what matters the most to me, and don't you know that millions of Americans feel the same way? Getting a job and being able to pay the bills and being able to maintain my independence isn't what matters to me. Nor is having my life back. What matters most to me is that the president is seen as cool.

Estrich is quick to clarify her point. "I mean cool in the grownup sense of being disciplined and projecting confidence."

"Cool" is one of those words that used to have some meaning. Now, it seems like a cliché, like saying that someone or something "rocks" (as I recall, Katie Couric used that phrase to describe American forces when they invaded Iraq in 2003). Or like saying that someone or something is "the bomb." It makes me wonder, exactly how did something destructive become synonymous with something good, except in a war context? (I used to make zucchini muffins for office potluck spreads when I was employed, and one of my co–workers once told me they were "the bomb." I could only assume that was a good thing.)

I'm not just talking about words, although that's all Estrich offers in defense of her president. I don't mean to downplay the importance of confidence, either, but it seems to me that confidence requires more than lip service. If we're being asked to accept something on faith alone, let's be honest about that, even though there will always be a portion of the population that will not be satisfied with appeals for faith.

Estrich doesn't seem to have an opinion on the details of Obama's policies. "I don't know whether Obama's budget is too big," she writes. "I don't know whether the CEO of GM was the problem. I don't know whether raising taxes on the rich will help or hurt the economy."

Funny, I expected more than that from someone who once ran the campaign for a presidential nominee. Does she have no opinion on the size of the budget or GM's CEO or tax policy?

At various times in the last 100 days, there have been different distractions. When one loses its juice, there is another one waiting to take its place. Last month, some of Obama's supporters criticized me by e–mail for writing that Obama should focus his attention on the economy instead of filling out his NCAA Tournament brackets. I was told that this was an indicator that Obama is "a regular guy." I addressed this in my blog, in case you'd like to go back and read it yourself.

Anyway, once the NCAA Tournament was behind us, a new distraction was needed. It came along in the form of formal missteps.

Of course, there are those who are far too willing to overlook and make excuses for the protocol mistakes made recently by the Obamas, and they shamelessly take the bait from Obama's critics.

One such breach of etiquette was quickly shrugged off by the Atlanta Journal–Constitution's Cynthia Tucker, a journalist who has written some solid columns in the past but seems hardly able to restrain herself from her self–appointed role of chief apologist.

"First lady Michelle Obama's easy charm is so infectious that she melted the famously stiff and formal queen of England," Tucker writes of the incident in which Mrs. Obama touched the queen. Her answer to critics? Well, we like her. "The first lady is a national icon, a mirror for our changing mores, a symbol of our aspirations for wives and mothers, a role model for gracious hostesses and socially conscious volunteers."

In other words, tradition be damned.

Hey, look, I know it's not important if Michelle Obama put her hand on Queen Elizabeth. And I know it wasn't important that Barack Obama bowed to the Saudi king. Just like it wasn't important what Hillary Clinton said about serving tea and cookies or Tammy Wynette and standing by your man.

And it really isn't important that most people don't give the Senate very high marks after 100 days. Even if I live to be 100 — and control of the Senate flips from one party to the other each election cycle — I don't expect glittering marks for Congress.

But it is important — for a whole bunch of reasons and to a whole bunch of people — to start seeing some improvements in the economy and the unemployment picture.

Specter Speculation

Bill Kristol is relentlessly optimistic. He never sees a cloud that doesn't have a silver lining for the Republican Party, even when the cloud is the defection from the party's ranks of a veteran senator.

In the Washington Post, Kristol writes that yesterday's announcement that Pennsylvania's Arlen Specter is joining the Democrats is good news for the Republicans.

At first blush, that may seem ludicrous. Republicans have lost their hold on 14 Senate seats since matching their post–Depression high of 55 in 2004. If Al Franken assumes the Senate seat from Minnesota — as now appears likely — Democrats will hold the presumably "filibuster–proof" 60–seat majority they openly coveted during the 2008 campaign.

But Kristol believes this can be a good thing for the GOP.

Barack Obama and the Democrats, he writes, will "be responsible for everything. GOP obstructionism will go away as an issue, and Democratic defections will become the constant worry and story line. This will make it easier for GOP candidates in 2010 to ask to be elected to help restore some checks and balance in Washington — and, meanwhile, Specter's party change won't likely have made much difference in getting key legislation passed or not. So, losing Specter may help produce greater GOP gains in November 2010, and a brighter Republican future.

"Plus, now the Democrats have to put up with him."

The impact of the 60–seat majority on next year's elections remains to be seen, but history does provide ample evidence of the lack of discipline among Democrats — and the price they have paid for it.

As I observed yesterday, Jimmy Carter was the last president whose party held such an advantage in the Senate, but it didn't help him too much. The absence of unity in the Democrats' approach to governing enabled Republicans to chip away at the majority in the midterm elections of 1978, followed by the loss of a dozen seats in the Republican landslide of 1980.

In the 1960s, Democratic Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson built an even greater Democratic majority in the Senate, exceeding two–thirds of the Senate membership, but Republicans gradually chipped away at the deficit until being sidetracked by the Watergate scandal.

And Harry Truman, whose Democrats reclaimed majorities in both houses of Congress while Truman was winning his "upset" victory in the 1948 presidential campaign, handed control of Congress over to Dwight Eisenhower and the Republicans four years later.

I am reminded, in an odd way, of something Gene Wilder (as Willy Wonka) said to Charlie Bucket at the end of the 1971 film "Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory:"

"Charlie, don't forget what happened to the man who suddenly got everything he always wanted," Wonka said.

"What happened?" Charlie asked.

"He lived happily ever after," Wonka replied.

Specter may have given the Democrats everything they wanted, but history suggests it is unlikely that they will live happily ever after.

As this political drama plays out over the next couple of years, I urge you to remember the words of Will Rogers:

"I am not a member of any organized party — I am a Democrat."

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Fear of Flying

Twenty–one years ago today, Aloha Airlines Flight 243, a Boeing 737, sustained considerable damage after an explosive decompression in flight between Hilo and Honolulu in Hawaii.

The flight was able to make a safe emergency landing on Maui. Sixty–five people were injured and only one — flight attendant C.B. Lansing — was killed when she was blown out of the plane. Her body was never found.

In general, 1988 was not as bad for commercial flight as other years that came before or after. In 1987, for example, there were nine airplane crashes, compared with seven in 1988 (Flight 243, as I have noted, did not crash) — including the midair disintegration of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland in December 1988.

Nearly a year after the Aloha Airlines incident, on Feb. 24, 1989, it seemed that lightning struck again when United Airlines Flight 811, a Boeing 747, suffered an explosive decompression shortly after takeoff from Honolulu. Nine passengers were sucked out of the plane, but the plane landed safely in Honolulu.

Nine airplanes crashed — or were blown up in midair — in 1989.

A couple of years after the Aloha Airlines disaster, a TV movie based on the event, "Miracle Landing," was shown on CBS. The film itself was terrible, and the acting was dreadful — probably doing little, if anything, to alleviate anyone's fear of flying.

Specter's Switch

I've seen a lot of unexpected things in a lifetime of following American politics.

But I can't think of anything that astonishes me as much as today's announcement that Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter is switching parties and will run as a Democrat when he seeks re–election (at the age of 80) next year.

I guess it shouldn't surprise me, though. Specter was a Democrat when he was young, then switched parties when he sought office in Philadelphia in the 1960s. He tells the story in the attached clip.

Specter was elected to the Senate in the Republican year of 1980. The Republicans took control of the Senate that year, but Specter's election didn't really contribute to it because he didn't replace a Democrat. He was elected to fill the vacancy left by the retirement of Republican Richard Schweiker, who had a centrist voting record.

In fact, four years earlier, Schweiker was named as Ronald Reagan's running mate in a political maneuver that was intended to help Reagan win the hotly contested Republican nomination in 1976 — but failed to do so. Then, in 1981, after Schweiker left the Senate and Reagan became president, Reagan chose Schweiker to be his secretary of Health and Human Services, a post he held for two years.

Specter, meanwhile, has been re–elected four times — in 1986, 1992, 1998 and 2004 — sometimes by wide margins, sometimes in close contests. He is considered a moderate, conservative on issues like crime and national security, with a more liberal record on abortion, the environment and immigration. He favors affirmative action and voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1990. He opposes same–sex marriage but supports civil unions. He supports the death penalty and opposes most forms of gun control.

Specter's greatest value to the Democrats in 2009 is the fact that, with Al Franken apparently on the brink of becoming the senator from Minnesota, he gives the Democrats the 60–seat, "filibuster–proof" majority needed to accomplish whatever they wish.

No president has had that luxury since Jimmy Carter in 1977 and 1978.

"Since my election in 1980, as part of the Reagan Big Tent, the Republican Party has moved far to the right," Specter said in a statement today. "Last year, more than 200,000 Republicans in Pennsylvania changed their registration to become Democrats. I now find my political philosophy more in line with Democrats than Republicans."

Specter was expected to face a rough campaign for re–election as a Republican next year. Many conservatives had sworn to oppose him, in large part because of his support for the economic stimulus package. And there was much rejoicing in Republican ranks a couple of weeks ago when it became known that former Rep. Pat Toomey would challenge him for the GOP nomination next year. Toomey nearly beat Specter in the Republican primary in 2004, even though Specter was endorsed by George W. Bush, and now, presumably, becomes the odds–on favorite to win the GOP nod and face Specter in the 2010 general election.

Even though there is plenty of agenda promotion going on in both parties right now, I have to wonder if Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele wasn't on to something when he said, "Sen. Specter didn't leave the GOP based on principles of any kind. He left to further his personal political interests because he knew that he was going to lose a Republican primary due to his left–wing voting record."

Does Specter's switch indicate a genuine change of heart? Or is it a pragmatic ploy to prolong his political career?

Time will tell.

The Campaign That Might Have Been

Last year, many Republicans made no secret of their dissatisfaction with their party's nominee. Never mind the fact that John McCain was the winner of 31 Republican primaries, including several head–to–head contests with his leading rivals (Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney).

Right–wing Republicans may have yearned for a candidate whose views more closely mirrored their own, but there was one problem — nobody who met their standards sought the nomination. Some may argue that there were those — Romney, Huckabee, Ron Paul — who came close but fell short in one way or another.

They might have been better representatives of the Republican Party and the conservative movement in many ways, but their main problem was that conservatives never united behind them.

That's how it works in American politics. The concept of "drafting" a reluctant candidate for the presidency is an antiquated notion. To be nominated by a major party, one must actively campaign for the nomination. It is not an endeavor for wallflowers.

That doesn't prevent pundits from fantasizing about what might have been — even if what might have been was never very likely to begin with.

Such is the case with conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, who rhapsodizes about what might have been if Dick Cheney had been the nominee instead of McCain.

Cheney is one of two vice presidents in my lifetime who never ran for president — the other was Spiro Agnew.

Agnew may have fantasized about seeking the nomination — before his crimes caught up with him — but he and Cheney are the only veeps who never ran for the top job. And it's extremely unlikely that Cheney will do so. He will turn 70 in 2011.

Most of the time, someone who serves as vice president seeks the presidency after completing his tenure — but not always. Some, like Al Gore and George H.W. Bush, run as sitting vice presidents. Others, like Walter Mondale, run later.

And some — like Lyndon Johnson — ran for president before they became vice president.

Some point out, for example, that Gerald Ford's vice president, Nelson Rockefeller, did not seek the presidency after Ford left the White House in 1977, which is true, but Rockefeller did seek the GOP nomination (unsuccessfully) in the 1960s. And, even if he does not seek the presidency after his time as vice president ends, Joe Biden will not join Cheney and Agnew because he made two abbreviated attempts to win the nomination (in 1988 and 2008) before he was chosen to be Barack Obama's running mate.

Even Dan Quayle, who is arguably the gold standard for poorly regarded vice presidents, sought the nomination — briefly — in 2000.

In the last years of his vice presidency, Cheney's disapproval numbers rivaled Quayle's. By the time that he left office, Cheney's performance got a thumbs–down by a 2–to–1 ratio in a Washington Post poll.

He was not a popular guy, even when he accidentally shot a lawyer on a hunting trip three years ago. And, given his health problems over the years (most notably, four heart attacks), one can legitimately wonder if he could have stood up to the rigors of a presidential campaign.

But Douthat seems to have few doubts about what would have been his suitability to seek the presidency.

"Watching Dick Cheney defend the Bush administration's interrogation policies," writes Douthat, "it's been hard to escape the impression that both the Republican Party and the country would be better off today if Cheney, rather than John McCain, had been a candidate for president in 2008."

Douthat doesn't suggest that Cheney might have beaten Obama, which is wise. Once the economic meltdown occurred last fall, I felt the election was a done deal. Republicans might even have fared worse with an actual member of the Bush administration at the top of the ticket than they did with McCain, who had the virtue (in the public's eyes) of having opposed some of Bush's policies.

Douthat argues that Cheney would have been "as disciplined and ideologically consistent as McCain was feckless," and he presumes that he would have been as "cuttingly effective" in the presidential debates as he was in his vice presidential debates in 2000 and 2004.

But the real benefit, Douthat seems to think, would have been that "when he went down to a landslide loss, the conservative movement might — might! — have been jolted into the kind of rethinking that's necessary if it hopes to regain power."

Beyond that, Douthat says a Cheney candidacy could have had a cleansing effect on the country that the McCain candidacy did not have.

"The former vice president's post–election attacks on Obama are bad form," he acknowledges. "But they're part of an argument about the means and ends of our interrogation policy that should have happened during the general election and didn't — because McCain wasn't a supporter of the Bush–era approach, and Obama didn't see a percentage in harping on the topic."

I don't know if that is true. A lot of things should have been discussed in recent presidential campaigns but never got discussed in spite of the presence in the campaign of the people who made the important policy choices. The war in Iraq, for example, should have been talked about at length during the 2004 campaign — but the public was easily distracted by stories from Vietnam and whether gay people should be allowed to marry. In previous campaigns, serious issues took a back seat while there were heated debates about things like flag burning.

Nevertheless, Douthat makes a valid point when he says, "where the Bush administration's interrogation programs are concerned, we've heard too much to just 'look forward,' as the president would have us do. We need to hear more: What was done and who approved it, and what intelligence we really gleaned from it. Not so that we can prosecute ... but so that we can learn and pass judgment and struggle toward consensus."

Could that have been achieved through a Cheney candidacy? I don't know. I have my doubts. But Douthat doesn't appear to be skeptical.

"Here Dick Cheney, prodded by the ironies of history into demanding greater disclosure about programs he once sought to keep completely secret, has an important role to play," Douthat writes. "He wants to defend his record; let him defend it. And let the country judge.

"But better if this debate had happened during the campaign season. And better, perhaps, if Cheney himself had been there to have it out."

That may be so. But I still doubt that the desire for disclosure would have been satisfied if the sitting vice president, with his penchant for secrecy, had been the Republican standard bearer.

Perhaps he feels freer now, as the former vice president, to speak openly about his role. And perhaps that would be a good thing for the country.

But I am dubious — at best — that having Cheney at the top of the ticket instead of McCain would have helped the Republicans see more clearly what they must do to get back in the voters' good graces.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Penny Wise and Pound Foolish

As John Nichols observes in The Nation, Republicans resisted including $900 million for pandemic preparedness in the economic stimulus package earlier this year.

As the outbreak of swine flu shows, that resistance was foolish.

Maine Sen. Susan Collins spearheaded the opposition in Congress, following the lead of former White House political czar Karl Rove — ostensibly to save money but chiefly for partisan political reasons.

There was no connection, they argued, between economic recovery and pandemic preparedness. Rove even argued that the health sector added jobs in 2008, which (he claimed) made stimulus funding even less necessary.

Oh, really?

Collins was one of three Senate Republicans who voted for the watered–down version of the stimulus package in spite of threats from members of her party to oppose any Republican who supported it. It bewildered me then — and it bewilders me now — why Collins should be sensitive to such threats. She was just re–elected last November and won't have to face the voters again until 2014.

Besides, Maine is no longer the Republican stronghold it once was. Working with Democrats makes sense for a moderate Republican like Collins.

In the wake of reports of an outbreak of deadly swine flu south of the border — and further reports of cases in the United States — efforts to cut the stimulus package by eliminating pandemic preparedness funds seem to be a clear case of being penny wise and pound foolish.

The swine flu outbreak may be something that can be contained, but Nichols quotes one person who is skeptical about that:
Dr. Anne Schuchat, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's interim deputy director for Science and Public Health Program, explained to reporters on Saturday that, because the cases that have been discovered so far are so widely spread (in California, Kansas, New York, Ohio and Texas), the outbreak is already "beyond containment."

Nichols rightly points out that "a pandemic hitting in the midst of an economic downturn could turn a recession into something far worse — with workers ordered to remain in their homes, workplaces shuttered to avoid the spread of disease, transportation systems grinding to a halt and demand for emergency services and public health interventions skyrocketing."

To me, this is a reminder of how intertwined everything is — and how tenuous and fragile those connections are.

I know I'm using the word "foolish" a lot in this post, but, frankly, I can think of no better word to describe Republican efforts to save dollars by eliminating funds intended to save lives by preventing the spread of an epidemic — especially when we are not that far removed from the public hysteria brought on by outbreaks of SARS and avian flu in other parts of the world, not to mention concerns about viruses growing resistant to existing antibiotics.

The Fickle Finger of Fate

Remember a few years ago when voters in Iraq had their index fingers dipped in purple ink to show that they had participated in the election?

Apparently, a similar practice was followed in some recent local elections in India, and the mark from that election apparently is still visible.

So, in the current general elections, the Election Commission has decided to mark the middle finger on the left hand.

Now, when India's voters are asked to prove their electoral participation, perhaps they can simultaneously demonstrate what they think of the process itself — or the eventual outcome.

The Economic Outlook

Harry Truman was credited with saying a lot of things, but plain–spoken Harry may not have said everything that folks often claim that he did.

For example, Truman made phrases like "The buck stops here!" and "If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen" popular, but my understanding is that those lines did not originate with him.

The same may be true of another line that I was always told came from Truman: "If you laid the economists end to end, they'd point in all directions." Truman may not have been the one who said that line first, but that doesn't mean it isn't valid.

I guess there is an inherent risk in trying to predict the course of future events — which reminds me of a great line from an episode of the "M*A*S*H" TV series. In the episode, a soldier was pressuring the doctors to give him an assurance that an injured buddy was going to be all right. B.J. insisted that "the best medical opinion I can give you is that he might." Hawkeye was less diplomatic and, after telling the soldier that "we're not gods," said this: "We find out about the future the same way everyone else does."

It would be helpful for all of us if we could consult an oracle who could assure us when the recession would end and unemployment would start to decline. But if such a person exists, I haven't heard about him/her.

In that Trumanesque "point in all directions" fashion, USA Today has surveyed 51 economists, and the conclusion isn't good if you're unemployed. The severity of the news differs with each economist, though.

"Most expect continued deterioration in the overall economy over the next six months," write Barbara Hagenbaugh and Barbara Hansen. Beyond that, there is less agreement.

The median forecast says unemployment will peak at 9.8%. As for the overall state of economic affairs, "58% of the economists surveyed said the economy will weaken in the next six months, albeit at a slower pace, while the rest forecast an improvement."

Well, it is certainly a tough assignment, predicting the course of the future. The best we mere mortals can do — as the economists point in different directions — is hope for the best but prepare for the worst.

The economy may well turn around faster than anyone expects — or the recession may drag on into 2010, 2011 or longer.

The phrase "brave new world" comes to mind — although perhaps it should be revised and extended to something like this ...

You'll have to be brave to survive in this new world.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

The 'War on Terrorism' Tightrope

Barack Obama is obsessed with bipartisanship.

That isn't an entirely bad thing. The George W. Bush years might not have been so bad if he and the Republicans in Congress had reached out more to their Democratic brethren, particularly the moderates. And, no doubt, it would make it easier to do the things that need to be done now if more Republicans were on board.

But, whichever party is in control of things — Democrats now, Republicans in the first half of this decade — eventually faces issues about which its members have strong feelings — and about which the opposition party has equally strong feelings. On both sides, it cuts to the core of what it means to be a Democrat or to be a Republican.

In those situations, the party that is in the majority has to abandon the desire for bipartisan support and keep its own members in line. The objective is to pass the legislation. If you happen to get a couple of votes from the other side, that's icing on the cake.

And that may be the kind of situation Democrats face now when the subject is investigating how the Bush administration waged the war on terrorism.

Given that a Democratic president may be in the position of authorizing an investigation into the administration of his Republican predecessor, Obama is understandably reluctant to pursue this. My gut tells me he waffles on some of these issues to stay on the good side of those who didn't vote for him last year.

But that's the wrong approach to take, considering that public opinion seems to favor some kind of review of the decisions that were made. It seems that this probe is going to happen, whether Obama supports it or not, and he risks alienating some who helped him win the presidency if he doesn't accommodate them.

Apparently, this "yes we can" movement doesn't rely on any one man, but it does depend on commitment to certain principles.

So what Obama needs to do is take the lead in structuring the investigation. And Jon Meacham provides some common–sense guidelines in Newsweek for that.
  • No televised hearings, like we had during Watergate and again during Iran–Contra. Inevitably, somebody (maybe several somebodies) will give in to the temptation to grandstand.

  • Don't pursue criminal charges "against officials at the highest levels — including the former president and the former vice president." I'm not so sure about that one, although I understand how it would look on the surface.

    I keep thinking about Gerald Ford's pardon of Richard Nixon about a month after Nixon resigned, and I think that Ford paid a high price for that pardon throughout his presidency. In hindsight, I understand his reasoning, but I don't think he did a good job of articulating it for the American people. If he had, his presidency might have been more successful.

    But Ford wasn't a gifted speaker; thus, he might have been better advised, at that time, to let the justice system run its course, no matter where it took us. Obama is a better speaker than Ford so he may be able to talk his way out of a lot of things, but if public opinion supports the prosecution of some former higher–ups, Obama may be powerless to resist the tide.

  • Meacham argues that "[t]he idea that our only options are to move on completely or to prosecute is a classic false choice." He says an alternative is a 9/11 kind of commission that has a certain number of Bush sympathizers. That may be the closest that Obama can come to bipartisanship on this one.

    "We heard many similar arguments against the 9/11 Commission that we are now hearing about what we might call a 9/12 panel," Meacham writes, "but the 9/11 report was riveting and revealing, and we are better off for it. Why preemptively foreclose the possibility that a follow–up project would lead us even further forward?"
OK, I get that Obama would prefer not to do this right now. But he can't sidestep any criticism. And flip–flopping will only bring more criticism from both sides.

He also can't avoid an inevitable drop in his approval ratings. He has some (pardon the phrase) political capital to spare right now. He should be true to his principles yet avoid appearing meddlesome.

In other words, pick a side and stick with it. And then, whatever happens, don't interfere.

John Kass, a columnist for the libertarian/conservative–leaning Chicago Tribune, writes today that, contrary to the image of "flexible leader" that Obama has sought to project, "last week, he bowed to his base in the hard political left by reversing himself, opening the door for the prosecution of Bush Justice Department officials who helped develop harsh interrogation policies for suspected terrorists."

Kass says Obama "must stop campaigning someday and start thinking like a chief executive."

I agree — but part of being a good leader is being responsive to the desires of those being led.

And I believe the Ford experience shows there is a price to be paid for preventing the system from doing its job.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

And the Winner Is ...

The Democrats have maintained their hold on the 20th District House seat in New York.

For nearly two decades, Republicans held the 20th, until Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand won the seat in 2006. Gillibrand was re–elected in 2008, but she was appointed to replace Hillary Clinton in the Senate in January, making a special election necessary to replace her in the House.

The vote tabulation took nearly a month to complete, but Democrat Scott Murphy now appears to have won by 399 votes.

Republicans had hoped for an electoral backlash against Barack Obama's stimulus package and budget in the form of a victory in the 20th District, but they were disappointed.

And now, Stuart Rothenberg rubs some salt in the Republicans' electoral wound by writing in Roll Call that the suggestion that the Republicans can recapture the House next year is "lunacy and ought to be put to rest immediately."

Rothenberg points out that three prominent Republicans — House Minority Whip Eric Cantor, former Speaker Newt Gingrich and campaign consultant Tony Marsh — did not predict the 40–seat shift that would be needed for a GOP takeover. They merely said it was possible.

Rothenberg is adamant, though. "It isn't (possible)," he states.

"[T]here are no signs of a dramatic rebound for the party, and the chance of Republicans winning control of either chamber in the 2010 midterm elections is zero," Rothenberg writes. "Not 'close to zero.' Not 'slight' or 'small.' Zero."

To achieve the kind of massive swing that the Republicans need, it is necessary for there to be a wave of public dissatisfaction of tsunami–like proportions. "You can cherry–pick your way to a five– or eight–seat gain, but to win dozens of seats, a party needs a wave," Rothenberg writes.

But — the recent "tea parties" notwithstanding — no such wave appears to exist.

"Waves are built on dissatisfaction and frustration, and there is little in national survey data that suggest most voters are upset with President Barack Obama's performance or the performance of his party," Rothenberg writes.

"Obama's job approval generally falls between 55% and 63%, and his personal favorable numbers are as strong or slightly better. The trend line on the right direction/wrong track question shows a growing optimism, as do attitudes about the direction of the economy."

A lifetime of observing politics in this country has taught me never to say "never." We're only about one–third of the way through 2009. Who knows what might happen between now and November 2010?

Polls are only snapshots of opinion at a moment in time. But the numbers, Rothenberg says, "show a public that is more upbeat than it was before the last election, and optimism produces status quo elections, not an electorate demanding change."

Rothenberg concedes there are millions who disagree with Obama's policies, "[b]ut those people have never liked Obama, and more importantly, they don't come close to constituting a majority of Americans.

"Most Americans — even many of those who are still worried and pessimistic — are willing to give Obama more time and to give him the benefit of the doubt."

Voter patience is not infinite. But the voters seem to understand that it was an extensive mess the new president inherited and, as long as the voters are willing to give Obama that benefit of the doubt, the prospects will remain bleak for Republicans.

Friday, April 24, 2009

The Streak Is Over ... Sort Of

Stocks posted gains today, but they weren't enough to offset recent losses for the Dow and S&P 500, bringing their six–week streaks of gains to an end. But the Nasdaq finished the week higher for the seventh straight week so its streak goes on.

As Barack Obama has been saying for quite awhile now, investors can expect fluctuations until economic fortunes are reversed.

And I've heard many stock market observers say that, in a bear market, mini rallies happen but, at some point, the markets hit the wall. Is that what happened to the Dow and S&P 500 this week? They only finished slightly lower this week. Is it possible they could have another positive week next week?

Seems possible to me, but I'm not an economist. I'm just a guy who hopes — like everyone else — that this recession will soon come to an end.

"[S]ome market pros are worried the run higher has been too much, too fast," writes Alexandra Twin for " 'We have a market that after a six–week rally was vulnerable to a pullback, sold off 4% or 5% and is now looking to move higher again,' said Steven Goldman, market strategist at Weeden & Co."

Will the Nasdaq take a tumble next week? It's a possibility.

In this economy, anything can happen.

A Simple Twist of Fate

Randy (right) and me standing in front of
a beer garden in St. Louis in 1987.

Lately, it seems, this blog has been more devoted to personal matters than I would prefer, but I guess it's part of my nature to write about things when they happen. And I am reminded these days of how much is beyond my control.

This is my default position, I suppose.

Anyway, I received word that my best friend since high school, Randy, is in the hospital. He had a heart attack.

His ex–wife tells me his condition is stable, and the doctors haven't decided on his treatment yet.

It is a time of great awareness for me, I guess. The economy has already made me aware — along with millions of others — of my vulnerability. So many of life's events, most of which seemed, for so long, to be the domain of people in my parents' generation, have become part of my life and the lives of the people with whom I grew up.

People in my age group have been married, had kids, been divorced, lost parents. Some have lost siblings. Some have lost children.

And now, although I tend to associate heart attacks with people who are much older than Randy and I, my best friend has had one. Proof, perhaps, that anything can happen to anyone at any time, and preconceived notions mean little — if anything.

My thoughts keep returning to the days when Randy and I were in high school, working on a college campus maintenance crew in the summers. We've had many laughs together over the years, reminiscing about some of the things we had to do when we were 16 and 17. There were many things that we did for $2/hour in those days that we wouldn't dream of doing today, we assured each other — and, if we were coerced into doing those things now, we certainly would not do them for $2/hour!

In those days, our work shifts began at 7 a.m. I had access to a car, so I picked Randy up around 6:50, and we would drive to work. After work, Randy and I would go to his house or to mine. We would listen to the popular music of the day, and we would talk about the kinds of things that teenagers talk about — girls and cars, mostly.

Randy used to accompany me on my weekly visits to an elderly friend of mine, Aunt Bess, of whom I wrote last fall on the 20th anniversary of her death. She always got a kick out of us — two young men about to embark on an uncertain journey into adulthood.

In hindsight, I guess we were like most kids. We didn't think much about the future. We were focused on the here and now. That, I guess, is the great thing about being a teenager. It's all in front of you. You can still be anything.

But, when you get older, you become things — spouse, parent, employee. Choices are fewer. Responsibilities are greater. So are the pressures.

I hope this heart attack will not be debilitating, that it can serve as a second chance for Randy. I hope it inspires him to make wise choices. A couple of decades ago, Randy and his wife made me the godfather to their daughter. She now has a child of her own. I hope he will live to dance at his grandson's wedding — and, if his grandson follows the family tradition, Randy will still be in his 60s when that day comes.

Perhaps adjustments in Randy's lifestyle will make the difference. I don't know. But I hope so.

I still feel too young to lose my best friend.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

As We Near the 100-Day Mark ...

The Pew Research Center has good news for the fledgling Obama administration — for the most part.

Barack and Michelle Obama have higher approval ratings than their two most recent predecessors. And the public generally has favorable opinions of the new president's policies.

But there is a fly in the ointment — Vice President Joe Biden.

The veep has a favorable rating of 51%. The last Democratic vice president, Al Gore, had a 55% favorable rating at a comparable point in the first term of the Clinton presidency. And Biden's immediate predecessor, Dick Cheney, enjoyed a favorable rating of 58%.

Pew also reports that Gore's unfavorable rating in April 1993 was 24%. Cheney's unfavorable rating in July of 2001 was 26%. Biden's unfavorable rating is 28%.

But this is kind of like a race. It doesn't matter where you start but where you finish, and I don't think it should be too hard for Biden to finish with a higher favorability rating than Cheney did when he left office in January.

It will depend, to a great extent, on how successful Obama is in reversing the negative economic trend. If more people have jobs than when Obama took office and foreclosures are down, his presidency is likely to be regarded as a success. And that will have a positive trickle–down effect on Biden.

Of course, if Biden goes on a hunting trip while he is vice president, it will help if he doesn't shoot anyone.

I don't know if Biden is much of a hunter, but if he is invited on a hunting trip, he might be well advised to do his shooting with a camera.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Postcard From the Past

Jim Kavanagh has written an interesting article for, and he deserves to be recognized for it.

It seems that an insurance agent in Ohio received a postcard from Montana in his post office box. According to Kavanagh, "The card said Fran and Polly were enjoying their cross–country train ride and had fed deer somewhere along the way."

But those names weren't familiar to the insurance agent, and the card was addressed to a different name.

Oh, and the card apparently had been mailed in 1962.

Kavanagh explains part of that through process of elimination. The addressee apparently had been editor of a local newspaper in a northeast Ohio community and once held that post office box number. She died in 1988.

"Fran and Polly" also seem to have been identified. Fran was a longtime reporter for another newspaper. She died in 1998. And Polly apparently was a friend and colleague of Fran's. She passed away in 2005.

As Kavanagh writes, mail sometimes gets lost behind machinery or inside a mail bag and is missing for a few years at a time, but it doesn't appear that the postcard was missing for all of the last 47 years. Kavanagh explains that the card apparently was purchased at an antique shop in Michigan.

What happened to the card is anyone's guess, but the most likely scenario is that, somehow, it wound up in the hands of someone who probably sold it with some similar items to an antique dealer.

Kavanagh learned that Fran was somewhat eccentric and collected postcards. She "built her postcard collection in part by mailing cards to friends while traveling and then asking for them back when she returned," Kavanagh wrote.

The discovery that the card never reached its destination may have been a disappointment to her. It may have forever been the missing link in her postcard collection chronicling her cross–country train trip in 1962.

But in 2009, it's a connection to people who no longer exist in an America from another century.

Bad News if You Like to Grill

I guess it figures that I would come across this sort of news today. It is about 4 p.m. in Dallas, Texas. There's hardly a cloud in the sky. There's a moderate wind from the south. The temperature is 91° — and the forecasts say we'll be between 92° and 95° before we're through today.

All across north Texas — and elsewhere — I'm sure many folks are thinking about firing up the grill. But Consumer Reports Health Blog is determined to pour some water on their charcoal.

And the blog reports that University of Minnesota researchers have established a link between "grilled or fried meat that is very well done, burned, or charred" and a higher incidence of pancreatic cancer. The leader of the study, which was conducted over a nine–year period, said, "We found that those who preferred very well–done steak were almost 60% more likely to get pancreatic cancer as those who ate steak less well done or did not eat steak."

Well, when you think about it, it makes sense, doesn't it? Doctors have established the presence of carcinogens in most smoke, so it makes sense that food that is subjected for lengthy periods of time to smoke from charcoal would absorb a certain amount of those cancer–causing agents. I have no biological training, but I can grasp that.

And thus, the organs that are involved in digestion would be exposed to the carcinogens instead of the organs involved in respiration.

The blog says the risk can be reduced by:
  • Cooking at a temperature below 325° F, the surface temperature at which heterocyclic amines (HCAs) begin to form,

  • Marinating food before grilling, which research shows can greatly reduce HCA formation, and

  • Not cooking food directly over the flame, because fat or marinade dripping on briquettes or gas flames can create flare–ups that contribute to HCAs and form other potential carcinogens.
But I have to wonder: Are there any special instructions if one cooks on a George Foreman Grill?

And does this only apply to red meat, or do you have to exercise the same caution if grilling chicken or pork?

Earth Day

Today is Earth Day, a tradition that began 39 years ago. It was founded in 1970 by Wisconsin Sen. Gaylord Nelson, who envisioned an "environmental teach–in" that would promote awareness of an environment–friendly agenda.

That first Earth Day was modest compared to what it has become in nearly four decades, but it still was impressive. More than 20 million people participated. In recent years, more than half a billion people have observed Earth Day in more than 175 countries, and CNN expects more than 1 billion to be involved in Earth Day activities today.

Nelson passed away in 2005, but the New Richmond News in his home state reports that his daughter says her father "always knew that our economic well–being depends on the quality of our natural resources."

Tia Nelson "also said Gaylord Nelson would be pleased at how the environmental movement continues to grow, especially during today's efforts to move the economy out of its recession." Unfortunately, though, Earth Day hasn't been getting as much attention as I hoped.

Even so, NPR is taking the opportunity to remind people that getting back to basics is good for us as well as the planet.

I do feel compelled to commend my church here in Dallas. Last Sunday's service was devoted to Earth Day. The Women's Chorus of Dallas sang at the service, including a rendition of Carly Simon's "Let the River Run," which inspired me to attach a video clip of Simon with this post.

Following the church service, the adults participated in a special lunch. Members of the congregation prepared vegetarian dishes to emphasize a planet–friendly diet, and the participants in the lunch voted on the best recipes. While the votes were being tabulated, there were presentations intended to raise awareness of things that can benefit the planet.

This morning, the Dallas Morning News provided a rundown on events that were planned today in north Texas.

Perhaps naïvely, I thought there would be more commentary elsewhere today about Earth Day, but I haven't been able to find much. Maureen Dowd of the New York Times is obsessing today about Tweeter, which has been a hot topic of late. I guess, if those who use Tweeter were Tweetering about the environment, she might be writing about Earth Day today. But I suppose the majority of Tweeter users are more interested in gossip than in causes — and Dowd, who has no whipping boy now that George W. Bush has been run out of town and Democrats control Congress, apparently prefers to ride the latest technological trend.

Dowd filed her column from San Francisco, where I would expect more attention to be given to Earth Day, but I haven't found so much as a single reference to it in the city that was synonymous with social activism when I was growing up.

It should be noted, though, that the Times does ask if being overweight contributes to the climate problem. That probably isn't what Nelson had in mind in 1970, but it's something.

Of course, there are other things going on in the world today:
  • The acting chief financial officer of mortgage company Freddie Mac appears to have committed suicide by hanging. His body was found in the basement of his home.

  • Barack Obama has — reluctantly — opened the possibility of investigating the use of terrorism during the previous administration.

  • Miss California's answer to a question on same–sex marriage apparently didn't satisfy the Miss USA judges.
It seems we can't put these issues on the shelf for a single day so we can focus on the threats to our planet.

Frankly, I think we should all pause and reflect on the words to a prayer of confession that was part of the Sunday morning service at my church last weekend:
For times we have failed to consider the harm done to air, water, land, plants and animals, have mercy upon us.

For times we have failed to conserve energy, have mercy upon us.

For allowing ourselves to be saturated by the allurements of a consuming culture, have mercy upon us.

For not living more simply so others could simply live, have mercy upon us.

For not being thankful for the many gifts you have given, have mercy upon us all.

We only have one planet.

Let's treat it well — while we still can.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

A Change of Heart?

Barack Obama has been urging Americans to look forward and not waste any time looking in the rear view mirror. In most regards, that is a sound policy. But not when it involves the use of torture.

In the days before the inauguration, I argued that it was important to investigate the activities of the Bush–Cheney administration, if only so the current administration — and the ones to come — would know the mistakes that were made and how to avoid repeating them.

Today, 13 weeks after Obama took office, the president "left open the door to creating a bipartisan commission that would investigate the Bush administration's use of harsh interrogation techniques on terrorism suspects," report Sheryl Gay Stolberg, Peter Baker and Scott Shane in the New York Times, "and he did not rule out taking action against the lawyers who fashioned the legal guidelines for the interrogations."

That's encouraging news for those of us who regard the torture techniques that were used in the previous administration as immoral, indecent and inhumane. There is no justification for torture, particularly the heinous practice of "waterboarding," which is believed to lead to physical and psychological problems that last for months, if not years.

The Bush administration justified it as the only way to get the information that was sought. But that's the problem, isn't it? Torture has never been shown to elicit reliable information. If it succeeds in getting any information from the person who is being tortured, it is apt to be the information that is being sought — whether that information is accurate or not.

In other words, the person who is being tortured will tell his/her interrogators what they want to hear, simply to get them to stop. How reliable is that?

Even if defenders of the policy can satisfactorily demonstrate that these techniques contributed to the prevention of an attack on a major American city in the months and years following the Sept. 11 attacks, does that justify the actions? (And, incidentally, no one has been able to prove that is the case.) Doesn't engaging in torture bring us down to the level of those we imagine ourselves to be far above?

Now, lest anyone get too excited about the possibility of a probe into the policies of the previous administration, Stolberg, Baker and Shane point out that Obama "said he is 'not suggesting' that a commission be established.

"But in response to questions from reporters in the Oval Office, he said, 'if and when there needs to be a further accounting,' he hoped that Congress would examine ways to obtain one 'in a bipartisan fashion,' from people who are independent and therefore can build credibility with the public."

The president has offered the Nazi defense for the benefit of operatives who engaged in torture during the Bush years — "we were just following orders." No doubt there are some operatives, just as there were some Nazis, who followed orders even though they disagreed with those orders.

But there are also those Americans — the ones at the Abu Ghraib prison, for example — who clearly enjoyed torturing and humiliating their prisoners, whether they got any useful information from them or not.

Just as there were Nazis who enjoyed torturing and killing Jews during World War II — and probably would have done so even without the sanction of their government.

If those Americans were "just following orders," let them document that. Give us tangible evidence.

But we do not need to give them a blanket excuse to help them avoid prosecution, especially if — as it was with the Abu Ghraib guards — it can be shown through available evidence that they enjoyed inflicting torture on their charges.

Even more than any of his predecessors, the first black American president should be aware of — and sensitive to — the rule of law and the necessity for America to support and defend human rights.

Another Modest Request

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you probably read my modest request last week.

Well, apparently that test went well because I received a call this afternoon inviting me back for an interview on Thursday. If that goes well, I've been told, I will be asked back for another interview. After that, the decision will be made.

So I'm asking my readers to keep me in your thoughts again — this time, at 11 a.m. (Central) on Thursday.

Thanks for all your encouragement and, remember, think happy thoughts!

The Death of a Deeply Flawed President

Tomorrow will mark 15 years since the death of Richard Nixon.

He suffered a stroke on April 18, 1994 and died four days later.

It had been nearly 20 years since he became the first (and, so far, only) president to resign.

I was 8 years old when Nixon was elected president in 1968, and I was a teenager during the Watergate years. Most of what I knew of him at the time was what I had heard the adults in my world say about him. My parents were both strongly anti–Nixon, as were most of their friends. My mother's mother was a Nixon supporter; so was my mother's father, although he died during Nixon's first year as president. My father's mother was a Nixon opponent; my father's father died more than two years before Nixon was elected president.

My father called him by his nickname — "Tricky Dickie." In fact, Dad hated Nixon so much that he refused to see Oliver Stone's film about Nixon that came out about a year and a half after Nixon died. He had heard that the film trashed Nixon, but he simply refused to see it.

I parroted my father. During Nixon's life, I never called him President Nixon, only Tricky Dickie. And I accompanied my mother when she went door to door in our hometown in Arkansas campaigning for Nixon's 1972 opponent George McGovern, largely because McGovern was an outspoken foe of the Vietnam War. It took a lot of courage to campaign against Nixon that year, especially in Arkansas, but Mom had plenty of it. And having her 12–year–old son with her probably softened some of the reactions she received, although we had plenty of doors slammed in our faces.

I remember that, not long after Nixon resigned because of the Watergate scandal and the damning revelations from the subpoenaed White House tapes, we received a letter from some old friends who happened to be Republicans and had been devoted Nixon supporters. Most of that letter was newsy stuff, updating us on the activities of their family, but they added a politically oriented P.S. — "Tell David," it said, "that we agree. Dickie was tricky!"

That was quite a concession.

But it was a conclusion that most Americans had reached by the time he left office.

Well, I'm older now. It has been nearly 35 years since Nixon resigned, and, in many ways, my opinion of Nixon has changed. In some ways, I believe he was a good president. School segregation ended during his presidency. He focused federal attention, for the first time, on environmental concerns via the Environmental Protection Agency — which will be a worthwhile point to remember tomorrow, on Earth Day. His administration established the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Nixon signed the Clean Air Act of 1970, one of the most significant pieces of legislation ever signed into law. And, about six months before he resigned, he introduced the Comprehensive Health Insurance Act.

On the foreign scene, he made breakthrough trips to China and Russia. Even McGovern told Rolling Stone in 1983, "President Nixon probably had a more practical approach to the two superpowers, China and the Soviet Union, than any other president since World War II. ... I think, with the exception of his inexcusable continuation of the war in Vietnam, Nixon really will get high marks in history."

But the Watergate scandal showed how deeply flawed Nixon was. He had a complex personality, possessing a brilliant mind but a secretive, controlling nature. Some of the people in his administration brought out the worst in him and appealed to his narcissistic and paranoid character. Biographer Elizabeth Drew described Nixon as a "smart, talented man, but most peculiar and haunted of presidents."

Volumes have been written about Nixon, and I suspect that he will continue to fascinate historians for years to come.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Victors, Not Victims

Ten years ago today, the massacre at Columbine High School took place.

I will admit that I approached this day not entirely sure what to say about that event — or what has happened in the decade since 13 people were murdered and their murderers committed suicide in that school in Littleton, Colo.

But, little by little, it has crystallized in my mind.

The Denver Post reports that Colorado lawmakers say the school has triumphed over tragedy. In fact, that is the name of a resolution that was passed by Colorado's legislature earlier today — "Columbine High School Triumph over Tragedy."

And a few hours ago, I was listening to the radio, and one of the young people who was injured on that day was the subject of discussion. That young man, they were saying, recovered from his wounds. He is now in his 20s and working in financial services. Apparently, he has been asked about that day many times, which comes as no surprise. And he has frequently told people that he "chose to be a victor, not a victim."

That's probably the best way to approach this anniversary, although, as the Post reports, the grief lingers for many.

Even so, the Post also reports on how a video tape helped ease the suffering of the family of one of the casualties.

As someone who has lived through the sudden death of a close family member — in my case, it was my mother — I could relate to the sentiments that were expressed by Sue Petrone, the mother of a 15–year–old boy who was killed on that April day in 1999.

"I'm happy, but I don't know that I will ever experience true joy, and I miss Danny, and I miss that part of me," she told the Post reporter, who elaborated that Petrone "wants to get to a better place, but it scares her."

Petrone told the reporter, "Part of me is like, if I let that go, does that mean I don't love him, or don't love him as much as I once did, or, God forbid, I am forgetting him?"

Those are familiar sentiments for me. But they remind me of a conversation I had with my mother once when things weren't going well in my life. I don't remember what the problem was now. Mom's been gone for nearly 14 years, and this conversation took place several years before the flash flood that killed her.

But I will always remember the end of the conversation.

Mom said, "I want you to promise me that you're not going to give up."

I was probably in my 20s at the time. I don't recall having any intention of giving up, but, with the belligerence that is often a hallmark of youth, I replied, "Why shouldn't I?" I guess, at the time, I needed a reason.

And Mom looked me in the eye and said, "Because I said so, and I'm your mother."

So I suppose that what I would tell Petrone and the other families is not to worry about forgetting their loved ones. In a way, it's inevitable that you may forget some details with the passage of time, but that doesn't mean, as Petrone fears, that your love has lessened in any way.

The dead at Columbine, like my mother, would want their families to go forward with their lives. They would feel bad if they thought that they weren't remembered, and so it is entirely appropriate for those who survived that deadly day in Littleton 10 years ago to reflect on what happened, to remember those who died and then to proceed with their lives.

But those who died would feel worse if they thought that anyone they loved just stopped living because they had been gunned down in the halls of Columbine High School.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Lost in the Wilderness

Ever since losing the presidential election last November, Republicans in general and conservatives in particular have been wandering in the wilderness.

In the last few months, we've seen it frequently — in the speculation about who is the front–runner for the 2012 Republican nomination, even in the speculation over who is the leader of the party. Sometimes it's simply been logic explaining why it was inevitable that the American people would rebel and strategy memos suggesting tactics to help that rebellion turn back in their favor.

The latest example comes to us from Republican pollster/strategist Kellyanne Conway in Human Events.

Now, as I say, Conway is a pollster, and pollsters are prone to look upon their findings as conclusions that are chiseled in stone. But her argument is the opposite — that Barack Obama's approval ratings, which have remained in the 60% range, are soft and likely to change.

I agree that his numbers will change. In my lifetime, Obama is the 10th man to be sworn in as president, and each of the previous nine saw his approval numbers fluctuate. Each presidency is different, of course, but that experience has been universal.

In many ways, though, Obama differs from previous presidents — and I'm not just talking about race. Unlike four of his five most recent predecessors, Obama was not a governor before he became president. Unlike the last eight men to sit in the Oval Office before him, Obama came to the presidency directly from Congress. And he spent most of his adult years in a region of the country, the industrial Midwest, that hadn't produced the winner of a national election since Warren Harding nearly 90 years ago (Michigan's Gerald Ford did serve as president, but he never won a national election).

In terms of experience, both professional and personal, Obama is a different kind of president than those with whom Congress is accustomed to dealing. Even if his tenure there was brief, he was "one of them" until recently, and he understands what makes members of Congress tick in ways that George W. Bush, Clinton, Reagan and Carter never could. And the Republicans in Congress, after being soundly beaten in two consecutive elections, are feeling particularly belligerent. So it should have come as no surprise to anyone when Rush Limbaugh, the unofficial leader of the party, said (even if he now suggests that he was referring only to Obama's alleged intention to impose his "socialist" agenda) that he hopes the president will fail.

Because, in spite of the lofty language about change in last year's campaign, "different" is often seen as being bad. And, while Limbaugh may have fewer followers these days, the Dittoheads who remain continue to follow his lead and openly hope Obama will make mistakes, as all new presidents do.

Some presidents who stumbled, like Jimmy Carter and the first President Bush, never managed to recover from their decline in the public's esteem and went on to lose bids for re–election. Others, like Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, did recover and went on to win second terms.

Conway argues that there is a difference between the regard that people have for their new president and their level of approval for his policies.

"Strong majorities of Americans say his main priority should be the economy and jobs, while less than 5% want him to focus instead on abortion policy (most of whom are pro–life incidentally)," Conway writes. "Why, then, has he made or proposed three major changes to abortion–related policy in the first 100 days?"

That seems like a red herring to me — but not entirely. I mean, I've been arguing that the emphasis should be on the economy and jobs. I've worried that we were trying to do too much at once. I definitely have my reservations about some of the aspects of the stimulus package and the budget.

But I want the president's policies to succeed. There are no guarantees so I have to trust him to make the right decisions.

In a decidedly reversed role, I often feel like Jason Robards in "All the President's Men," when, as Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, he is having a newsroom conversation with Woodward and Bernstein.

"I can't do the reporting for my reporters, which means I have to trust them," he said, "and I hate trusting anybody."

I can't argue with the suggestion that Obama's personal popularity exceeds the support for his policies, but, again, it's nothing new. As I recall, there was a significant difference between public approval for Reagan, who was seen as personally likable, and his policies, which were a radical departure from what had come before.

Reagan, like Obama, took office during a severe recession. He believed that taking a different approach was the answer, but not everyone shared his opinion. And he tried to use his personal popularity to sell the public on his policies.

There is a certain amount of impatience on the part of the American people, though. Conway acts like this is something new, but Reagan, as revered as he is today, struggled with it in the midterm elections of 1982 and 1986.

"[T]hree months into Mr. Obama's presidency, twice the number of people thinks the country is headed on the wrong track rather than in the right direction," Conway writes. "Though the spin–doctors will revert to script and blame President Bush for this, the fact is that millions of Americans are nervous, angry, and impatient with what they see as a lack of results and the wrong priorities in what is now the Obama economy."

Duh. The economy has been shedding more than half a million jobs a month for several months now, and Americans are "nervous, angry and impatient." Stop the presses.

That gives me the chance, though, to mention something else. Conway doesn't talk about it in her article, but I've heard her mention in interviews how there were no more terrorist attacks on American soil after Sept. 11, 2001. Bush apologists have frequently said that Bush's policies "kept us safe," but I think that is an unsupported conclusion.

The terrorists attacked the World Trade Center the first time in 1993, then waited more than eight years before striking again. If the assertion about Bush is valid, shouldn't that suggest that Bill Clinton's policies kept America safe from terrorism as well? Yet, his Republican critics insist on chastising Clinton for not apprehending Osama bin Laden (in spite of the fact that Bush did not apprehend him, either).

The terrorists have demonstrated a willingness to wait a long time between attacks while they explore a variety of angles. The absence of an attack seems to have little, if anything, to do with anti–terrorism policies and rhetoric.

Still, Conway articulates a problem I have been warning about for quite awhile — namely that a president's "honeymoon" with the public will last only so long, and, in the absence of evidence that things are truly getting better, public opinion will start to turn.

Some of that impatience was on display in the "tea parties" last week — but most, if not all, of the participants were not and never had been Obama supporters.

I can't speak for anyone else, but I do not consider myself a supporter, nor do I consider myself an opponent. I consider myself an American, a free agent who sometimes agrees with the president and sometimes disagrees with the president. I am in no one's pocket. And I never felt that I should attend one of the tea parties.

I think I embody what Conway meant when she wrote, "Approval means something, but it should not be confused with respect, agreement, confidence, blind faith or a blank check. It is not a commitment; for many, it is a polite nod of the head or shrug of the shoulder," although I feel that I can respect an elected leader and still disapprove of the job he/she is doing.

Too few of Bush's supporters — including Conway herself — adhered to that definition. They blindly supported Bush even if they disagreed with him, even when they had lost confidence in him, and they continued to give him a blank check to do as he saw fit.

In the case of Obama, I tend to think that only the president's most ardent supporters and opponents regard themselves as sure things for either side. There are those who are much too willing to drink whatever flavor Kool–Aid is being served. But there are always extremists.

I concede, though, that I did not vote for Obama. Nor did I vote for John McCain.

For the most part, Conway does not describe my position in her article — except when she writes the following:

"Most Americans want the president — whoever he is — to do well, since they view (rightly or wrongly) a nexus between his success or failure and that of the nation."

I do believe a president's success and the nation's success are connected. Even when I have disagreed with a president's policy decisions, I have hoped that the president's decisions would work out in spite of my reservations.

Not for one second have I thought that I know more than anyone who has held that office in my lifetime — but I have disagreed with presidents from both parties.

And I certainly have never rooted for bad economic news to enhance my party's chances of victory. That would be unconscionably selfish. Too many innocent lives would be forced to pay the price.

And part of the idea, it seems to me, is to avoid as much of that as we possibly can.