Thursday, December 31, 2009

The End of the Decade

The defining event of the decade.

Today is New Year's Eve.

But this isn't just the last day of a year. It is the last day of a decade.

In truth, I guess the last day of every year marks the end of a decade, the end of a 10–year period. Even if the new year doesn't end in a zero.

But the presence of the zero at the end of the year that arrives at midnight provides a convenient starting point and ending point. Thus, we can start thinking of the first decade of the 21st century (the "Aughts," some folks like to call them — or the "Naughts," as others prefer) in the past tense.

What will this decade be remembered for?

First and foremost, I guess, the decade will be remembered for the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. More than any event before or since, that day symbolizes the clash between the modern world and the antiquated mindset that gave birth to al–Qaeda. It put this country on the path to two costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that still rage today.

And, even though the United States has squandered thousands of lives and nearly $1 trillion in those wars, the conflict clearly isn't resolved. We need look no further than the Christmas Day attempt to blow up a jet bound for Detroit to confirm that fact.

In the aftermath of that event, Scott Shane reports in the New York Times that the National Counterterrorism Center has been severely dressed down for its failings, although no one seems to have avoided criticism.

(Tellingly, columnist Maureen Dowd wrote in yesterday's New York Times, "Before he left for [Christmas] vacation, [Barack] Obama tried to shed his Spock mien and juice up the empathy quotient on jobs. But in his usual inspiring/listless cycle, he once more appeared chilly in his response to the chilling episode on Flight 253, issuing bulletins through his press secretary and hitting the links. At least you have to seem concerned.")

The decade will also be remembered for economic turbulence. It began with the bursting of the speculative so–called " bubble," and it ends in the wake of the rapid economic rise of China and India — and the simultaneous decline of the United States, culminating in a dizzying collapse that left millions of lives in a shambles.

As America appeared to teeter on the brink of another Depression, voters in this country chose to hand the presidency to a Democrat after eight years of Republican rule. That decision also produced the nation's first black president, whose nomination (but not his eventual electoral triumph) had been secured before the economic downturn.

As optimistic as many Americans were on the day Obama took office, that optimism has faded. And the optimism that saw the start of the 2000s has, too. CNN reports that, heading into 2010, Americans are less confident than they were on the eve of 2000.

It is ironic, I suppose, that Obama succeeded an unpopular president who took office in spite of the fact that he lost the popular vote when the decade was still new.

And, as Obama's presidency nears the end of its first year, many people who supported Obama because they wanted a president who would end the crisis and promote policies that would help put jobless Americans back to work have been having second thoughts. We may find out next week, when the Labor Department issues the final jobs report of the decade, whether they have reason to be reassured about the choice they made.

Of course, no discussion of the decade would be complete without a reference to Hurricane Katrina and the destruction it brought to New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in late August 2005. The storm caused more than $80 billion in damage (in 2005 dollars), and more than 2,500 people were killed or missing when it was over.

2005 was the midway point of the decade, and Katrina, along with the conflict over Terri Schiavo, marked a transition in the public's perception of Republicans and Democrats. That, too, was ironic, I suppose, given the way two former presidents, a Democrat (Bill Clinton) and a Republican (George H.W. Bush), had worked together only months earlier in the pursuit of relief for the victims of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that claimed more than 200,000 lives.

In the elections that followed — in 2006 and 2008 — Democrats were the winners. But, as 2010 begins, Democrats — once supremely confident that their Republican counterparts had botched things so thoroughly that they were virtually guaranteed to control the federal government for years to come — are nervously anticipating the midterm elections, aware that many Democratic officeholders face tough, if not impossible, re–election campaigns.

E.J. Dionne Jr. writes, in The New Republic, that the recriminations that have marked the first year of the Obama administration are a continuation of arguments that carried over from the Bush years. It is vital, he says, to put "the reckless and squandered decade that is, mercifully, ending" behind us.

"It should not surprise us that the battle for the future will be shaped by struggles over the past," Dionne writes. "How often over the last 40 years have conservatives defended their policies in the name of rolling back 'the excesses of the '60s?' For even longer, liberals were charged with being locked into 'the New Deal approaches of the 1930s.' Liberals, in turn, pointed proudly to both eras as times of unparalleled social advance."

But, while "Americans instinctively recoil at living too much in the past," he says, "we have no choice but to reach a settlement about the meaning of the last 10 years. It is the only way we will successfully turn the next 10 into a decade of renewal."

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

A Disaster Waiting to Happen

I've been reading a Washington Post column by Eugene Robinson about the Christmas Day incident in the skies over Detroit.

Upon finishing it, I felt sort of like Two–Face, Tommy Lee Jones' character in the 1995 movie "Batman Forever." When faced with a choice between options that appealed to each of his personalities, causing him to feel torn, he would say, "We're of two minds on the matter."

Well, that's how I feel about Robinson's column.

See, I think Robinson is spot–on in his assessment of Janet Napolitano and the bombing attempt. But I don't think he takes his concerns far enough.

"Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano's initial assessment of the Christmas Day airliner attack — that 'the system worked' — doesn't quite match the absurdity of 'Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job,' " he wrote. "But only because she quickly took it back."

Robinson makes it clear that he doesn't blame the Obama administration — although I suppose Napolitano is different kettle of fish. Robinson concedes that "[t]he White House is guilty only of defensiveness in not immediately recognizing the obvious: We have a problem. Actually, we have two problems."

One problem, he says, is "the incident reveals serious deficiencies in the 'system' that Napolitano and others were so quick to defend." He recommends several remedies — some of which involve technology that is considered intrusive.

The second problem — and this is my phrasing — is the inability of the present administration to think outside the box.

Afghanistan will receive more troops while al–Qaeda's operations are shifting to Yemen and Pakistan — maybe, as Robinson suggests, Somalia.

"I can't escape the uneasy feeling that we're fighting, and escalating, the last war," he writes, "while the enemy fights the next one."

I'll admit that is unsettling. But it doesn't go as far as it should.

Voters who voted for Obama last year did so for a variety of reasons. But I believe that most Obama voters would say that they expected the new president to not be George W. Bush or a continuation of his policies — whether they were talking about economic policies, the war on terrorism, stem cell research or anything else.

The complete absence of any obstacles is reminiscent of the Keystone Kops approach that allowed four airplanes to be hijacked and destroyed, along with the Twin Towers, on September 11.

This kind of incompetence also brings back memories of Heckuva–Job–Brownie — even before Robinson mentioned it in his column — and FEMA.

If you voted for Obama last year, did you think you were voting for this?

In Memoriam

In some ways, I suppose, 2009 began the way every year does. People died. Some were famous. Others were not. As the year progressed, though, 2009 seemed to develop a reputation — fairly or not — for being a year when celebrities died, many before their time.

Perhaps that reputation was spawned by the number of big names that departed the scene this year. In a group that large, there are bound to be those who die before the actuarial tables say they should. But, in truth, there was little hint of what was to come when the year started.

On New Year's Day, for example, Claiborne Pell, for whom the Pell Grants are named, died at the age of 90.

The next day, the world's oldest verified person died in Portugal at the age of 115. She would be followed by the second–oldest person, who died at the age of 113 on Jan. 19, and the person who replaced her as the oldest living person, who died at the age of 115 in September. In May, a woman in Kazakhstan who claimed to have been born in 1879 (which was unverified) died, supposedly at the age of 130.

Actor Pat Hingle died at the age of 84 the day after that. And, as George W. Bush prepared to vacate the White House, his cat India died at the age of 18, which would be tragically young for a human but is elderly in feline terms. (Bill Clinton's cat, Socks, was euthanized at the age of 19 on Feb. 20.)

January also saw the deaths of former Attorney General Griffin Bell, 90, on Jan. 5; actor Ricardo Montalban, 88, on Jan. 14; artist Andrew Wyeth, 91, on Jan. 16; and women's basketball coach Kay Yow, 66, on Jan. 24.

As January gave way to February, actor James Whitmore, 87, died on Feb. 6. Alan Landers, known as the "Winston man" for his appearances in advertisements for Winston cigarettes, died at the age of 68 on Feb. 27. Broadcaster Paul Harvey died at the age of 90 on Feb. 28.

In March, actor Ron Silver died at 62 on March 15. Jade Goody, a British reality TV star, died of cancer at age 27 on March 22.

I guess the next month is when Americans began to get an inkling that 2009 might not be a good year for avoiding premature death. Pitcher Nick Adenhart was killed in a car accident at the age of 22 on April 9, only hours after his first start for the Los Angeles Angels.

Adenhart's death could be dismissed as an anomaly, although famed pornographic actress Marilyn Chambers died at 56 on April 12 and former big–league phenom Mark "The Bird" Fidrych died at 54 the next day. Heisman Trophy winner Doc Blanchard died at 84 on April 19. Actress Bea Arthur died at 86 on April 25.

May had barely dawned when former Republican vice presidential nominee Jack Kemp died at 73. Two days later, actor Dom DeLuise died at 75. Basketball player Wayman Tisdale died at 44 on May 15.

Perhaps it was in June when the wheels came off, and people started thinking of 2009 as the year when famous people died before their time. It didn't begin that way, but, on June 25, Farrah Fawcett died at the age of 62 and Michael Jackson died at the age of 50. A few days later, TV pitchman Billy Mays died, also at the age of 50.

Actor David Carradine was 72 when he was found dead by accidental hanging on June 3, but in the public's memory he was still in his late 30s and early 40s, his age range when he appeared in the 1970s TV series "Kung Fu." Another TV personality, Ed McMahon, died at 86 on June 23.

Actor Karl Malden died at 97 on July 1. The next day, Richard Nixon's communications director, Herb Klein, died at 91. Football player Steve McNair, 36, was found murdered on July 4. Former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara died at 93 on July 6. On July 17, as America anticipated the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing on the moon, TV newsman Walter Cronkite, who covered the moon landing for CBS, died at 92.

Former Philippine President Corazon Aquino died at 76 on Aug. 1. Movie director John Hughes died at 59 on Aug. 6. Eunice Kennedy Shriver died at age 88 on Aug. 11, followed two weeks later by her brother, Teddy, who was 77. Legendary guitarist Les Paul died at 94 on Aug. 13. Pundit Robert Novak died at 78 on Aug. 18. The next day, Don Hewitt, the creator of 60 Minutes, died at age 86. Writer Dominick Dunne died at 83 on Aug. 26.

In September, one of the driving forces behind the creation of the long–running TV series M*A*S*H, writer Larry Gelbart, died at the age of 81. On Sept. 14, actor Patrick Swayze died at age 57. The same day, Jimmy Carter's press secretary, Jody Powell (65), and TV actor Henry Gibson (73) died. Two days later, Mary Travers of the folk group Peter, Paul and Mary died at 72. Speechwriter/journalist William Safire died at 79 on Sept. 27.

Country music singer Rusty Wier died at 65 on Oct. 9. Actress Collin Wilcox, who is probably best known for her role as the woman who falsely accuses a black man of raping her in the 1962 movie "To Kill a Mockingbird," died at 74 on Oct. 14. Comedian Soupy Sales died at the age of 83 on Oct. 22. Michelle Triola Marvin, the plaintiff in the landmark "palimony" suit, died at 76 on Oct. 30.

John Jay O'Connor, the husband of former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, died at age 79 on Nov. 11. Ironically, a man with a similar name, New York Times TV critic John J. O'Connor, died two days later at the age of 76.

Evangelist Oral Roberts died at 91 on Dec. 15. Actress Jennifer Jones died at age 90 on Dec. 17. Actress Connie Hines, who is remembered by many Baby Boomers for her role on the Mister Ed TV series, died at 78 on Dec. 18. An actress whose primary appeal was to a much younger audience, Brittany Murphy, died at age 32 on Dec. 20.

As I write this, there are still nearly 36 hours left in the year so anyone could still die before the new year begins. But, in hindsight, it seems unfair to label 2009 as the year when famous people died before their time. It may not have been a particularly pleasant year, but it hasn't been unusually deadly for either celebrities or those who are, as the saying goes, "too young to die."

I guess no recap of the deaths of 2009 would be complete without mentioning two names you probably never heard of. In the 1970s, they were linked by a best–selling book and, then, a made–for–TV movie that was based on that book. The opus was "Friendly Fire," which was written by C.D.B. Bryan in 1976. It was the true story of a young American soldier's death in Vietnam in 1970 as the result of "friendly fire" — i.e., fire from your own side — and the anger that led his parents to challenge the government's account of the circumstances.

This year, the mother of that soldier, Peg Mullen, died on Oct. 2 at age 92. Bryan died a couple of weeks ago at the age of 73.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Thrill Is Gone

CNN/Opinion Research Corp. released the results of a survey today.

Its findings? More than nine in 10 black Americans approve of the job President Barack Obama is doing. By comparison, 42% of whites approve of the job he is doing.

But, apparently, the bloom is off the rose with blacks.

"[W]hen asked how they personally feel about Obama's presidency, only 42 percent of black respondents say they're thrilled, with nearly half of those questioned saying they are happy but not thrilled," reports CNN. "The 42 percent who are thrilled is down from 61 percent in January, when Obama was inaugurated."

What's the reason for the decline?

Well, my take on it is this: No president, no matter who he is, no matter how popular he may be, can meet high expectations on a constant basis. And expectations for Obama — whether because of his race or the wreckage of the economy that he was elected to repair — were artificially high.

No specific career path can prepare someone to be president, and America has had presidents who came from all walks of life. The best any president can do is hope he learns how to be a successful president in time to achieve something. Some people will argue that Obama has achieved something with the passage of health care reform, but it remains to be seen how much more will be sacrificed as the House and Senate seek to approve identical legislation.

And, in spite of the emphasis Obama has placed on it, health care reform was never the primary issue for all his supporters. Those who expected sweeping societal changes overlooked the incremental nature of Obama's record in public service. Or they believed — falsely — that he could, by sheer force of will, accomplish transformational feats. Maybe they didn't think he would continue trying to appease people who repeatedly demonstrated they could not be appeased.

Well, declines in popularity happen to every president sooner or later. It's one of the drawbacks of living in a democracy.

It's newsworthy now because this president is black, and CNN is focusing on the results from black respondents. But it's as old as the presidency itself.

And Obama's success or failure as a president will be decided, in large part, by how he responds to his reversal of fortune.

It's Snowing in Dallas ...

It's about a quarter past 5 p.m. in Dallas, Texas, on December 29. And it is snowing.

But if you're one of my readers who lives someplace where it really snows in the winter, let me warn you. This is a Dallas, Texas kind of snowfall. It's snowing and raining simultaneously. The snowflakes are almost indistinguishable from the raindrops — except that the raindrops are just a little bit faster in their descent.

I thought about taking a digital photograph of it and posting it, but, at this point, I don't think the eye could tell the difference between snowflakes and raindrops in a still photo. You could tell that something was coming down, but you have to watch it come down to comprehend what is happening.

Besides, there's no accumulation. The ground is warm enough that snowflakes melt on impact, if not while they're still airborne.

Talking about a Dallas snowfall is almost an oxymoron. It's like talking about an Anchorage heat wave. (What would that be, anyway? A daytime high of 70° on the Fourth of July?)

We had a pretty significant snowfall (for Dallas) on Christmas Eve. There was enough of it that the pastor at my church was inspired to go on Facebook and tell people that it qualified as a white Christmas — in case the snow melted by morning, which it tends to do in north Texas. Well, the snow never did anything much to the streets, but it did accumulate on grass and rooftops, and we really did have a white Christmas morning in Dallas.

The snow began to melt away as the daytime temperatures rose above freezing, but places that were shaded kept the accumulated snow awhile longer. By Christmas night, most of the snow was gone, but you could still see some patches here and there.

Just north of here, in Oklahoma, I heard about accumulation and snowdrifts. Roads were closed. Here in Dallas, we got the sense that we had narrowly avoided some really severe weather.

This time, it looks like it won't even get cold enough for much, if any, of this snow to still be snow by sunrise.

Such is the nature of snowfall in Dallas.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Out of Context

When I was a boy, I remember having a George Carlin album in which he took on the personae of local TV news personalities in one of his routines.

One of the characters Carlin parodied was the sports anchor, who unapologetically told viewers that "I call 'em the way I see 'em ... and, if I don't see 'em, I make 'em up!"

I've been thinking about that comedy routine as I've been reading about the Christmas Day incident in which a man allegedly attempted to blow up a Northwest Airlines jet bound for Detroit and the responses of officials — one official in particular.

Clearly this is a deadly serious matter. Nothing even remotely funny about it — except, perhaps, for how it's been handled. And that wasn't especially funny.

Given what America has been through in this decade because of terrorism, this kind of situation calls for complete candor on the part of our leaders.

But candor is the last thing we've been getting from Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. Instead, what we've been getting is self–serving nonsense that appears to assume that the American people are a bunch of idiots who will believe anything they are told.

Well, I can't speak for 300 million Americans. But I don't think of myself as an idiot.

In fact, I feel my intelligence was insulted when Napolitano took to the airwaves to proclaim, as she did yesterday, that "the system worked."

The truth is, the system didn't work. Officials had been alerted that the suspect — whose name is so long and has so many syllables that it will never be the kind of name that just rolls off the tongue and is instantly recognizable and, therefore, I see nothing to be gained from entering it here (besides, he's likely to be in prison for the rest of my natural life, anyway) — had developed extreme religious views and may have been in Yemen. The informant was the man's father.

In spite of this, the man's visa to enter the United States was still good. Apparently, his name was added to a computerized watch list — but not to a no–fly list, so he encountered no resistance when he bought the ticket from Amsterdam to Detroit.

Now, I understand that most of the homeland security policies and procedures were already in place when Napolitano took office. And I realize that the P.R. function of her job is important — after all, if another 9/11 occurs, someone will have to go in front of the cameras and urge Americans to keep making trips to Disneyland so the terrorists don't win.

(Frankly, I just don't see Barack Obama performing that George W. Bush–like task. It is much more plausible that he would want a Cabinet member to shill for the travel industry in such a situation. Of course, I guess that presupposes that the economy will improve enough before the next 9/11 that the travel industry could be hurt seriously enough to pose a threat to the economic recovery — assuming, once again, that a recovery gets under way before the next 9/11. But I digress.)

But her claim that the system worked was ludicrous.

What worked? The plot was foiled because the suspect was subdued by the other passengers and the bomb's trigger mechanism let him down. What role did the "system" play? None that I can see.

Then, when she had to do some fast backpedaling on the morning shows, Napolitano gambled that she could get away with blaming others. Her words, she said, had been taken out of context.

She lost that gamble.

At this point, let me say that there are times when I believe computers and the digital age have given the bad guys an unfair advantage. But the gods manage to compensate for that sometimes. And, when Napolitano said her words had been taken out of context, I simply paid a visit to ABC's website and looked at the transcript for "This Week."

I wanted to see what she said that had been taken out of context. Here is what she said:
"Well, I think, first of all, we are investigating, as always, going backwards to see what happened and when, who knew what and when. But here — I think it's important for the public to know, there are different types of databases.

"And there were simply, throughout the law enforcement community, never information that would put this individual on a no–fly list or a selectee list. So that's number one.

"Number two, I think the important thing to recognize here is that, once this incident occurred, everything happened that should have. The passengers reacted correctly, the crew reacted correctly, within an hour to 90 minutes, all 128 flights in the air had been notified. And those flights already had taken mitigation measures on the off–chance that there was somebody else also flying with some sort of destructive intent.

"So the system has worked really very, very smoothly over the course of the past several days."

Now, "selectee list" is one of those bureaucratic phrases that could mean a lot of things. I think, for example, it could be synonymous with "watch list," but it's hard to tell.

Even if it isn't, though, here is a point that is worth remembering: While the Transportation Security Administration and the airlines do not publicize the criteria they use, some criteria are known, including a tendency to "flag" individuals who pay cash for their tickets, which the suspect did.

If the warning from the suspect's own father had not been enough for the homeland security people, the fact that he paid cash for his transatlantic ticket should have been a violation of their known standards.

On that basis alone, shouldn't he have been put on a selectee list? According to Napolitano, he was not. Those were her very words on Sunday — the words she now says were taken out of context.

OK. Show me what was taken out of context.

Today, Napolitano conceded the system did not work — but, if she has amended or retracted her claim that her words were taken out of context, I have not heard about it.

Until she does, the impression I get is of a department that is sloppily run by an incompetent administrator.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Comfort and Joy

Today is the day after Christmas, traditionally known as "Boxing Day."

There are a number of theories why it is called that, and I don't want to get into a discussion of which one may be correct. Suffice to say that several seem to be plausible.

Today, I have been thinking about Boxing Days past.

I guess I got started on this flight of fancy when I happened to recall that it was on Boxing Day in 1972 that President Harry Truman died at the age of 88. And it reminded me that, regardless of what we see on the surface, there is a lot of pain, a lot of loss that people cope with at this time of the year.

Pain and loss are no more or less intense at Christmas than they are at any other time, just more poignant, I suppose. At a time when the rest of the world is anticipating Christmas morning, a person's family and friends are preparing to say their goodbyes.

Chalk it up to the randomness of life, I guess. In spite of whatever significance Christmas Eve and Christmas Day may hold in your life, they have the same characteristics as any other day. They are 24 hours long, about 9 or 10 hours of which are spent in darkness.

And people die on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day — or Boxing Day — the same as they do on the other days of the year.

People die for lots of reasons, of course, and you can argue, if you wish, that some deaths are avoidable. I recall an episode of M*A*S*H in which the staff falsified the records of a patient's death so his children would not have to grow up thinking of Christmas as the day their father died. It became clear early on that this patient would not survive his injuries so they used all the superficial means at their disposal to prolong his life a few hours. Then, when they started to lose him, they adjusted the clock in the O.R. so they could all say it was just past midnight when he died.

Well, whether it is avoidable or not, death happens every day. And, in the long run, does it matter if one dies on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day or Boxing Day? I don't think so. More than any other holiday, Christmas is more than a date on the calendar. It is a season. If someone dies in December, his/her survivors will associate the death with the Christmas season.

In the case of an elderly person or a terminally ill person, I suppose the date of one's death is completely random, the luck of the draw.

And sometimes the death is perplexing. A friend of mine who has been spending Christmas with family in another state will be cutting his holiday short to return to Texas for a memorial service for a good friend. His friend wasn't elderly nor was he in particularly bad health. But he had a massive heart attack before Christmas. The family wanted a private funeral, but the grieving friends will gather for a memorial service next week.

In America, less than four dozen men have been president. No president has died on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day — and Truman was the first to die on Boxing Day. But in my lifetime, we have now had two presidents who died on Boxing Day. Gerald Ford, at the age of 93, died on this date three years ago.

I think, without a doubt, the most tragic loss of life on a Boxing Day occurred five years ago today. An earthquake in the Indian Ocean, with a magnitude of between 9.1 and 9.3, triggered a tsunami that killed almost 230,000 people in nearly a dozen countries.

It was the second strongest earthquake ever recorded (second only to the 1960 Valdivia, Chile earthquake), and it was the fifth–deadliest in history. It could have happened any time — but it happened the day after Christmas, when many tourists were spending their holiday in the warm climates of places like Indonesia and Sri Lanka.

And the survivors of all those victims must live with that memory every Christmas.

I can only hope they find some comfort in this season of hope.

Maybe THAT Is Where It Began

I guess it has been obvious in the things I have written this year that I get frustrated with Democrats who point the finger at George W. Bush when I ask them what is being done about job creation.

Now, I know only too well that some people exist in a world — nay, a universe — all their own, and they might not have realized that America and the world endured a horrifying economic collapse in the fall of 2008.

But, in my experience, most voters are more engaged than that so I have believed that, acting as individuals, the voters made a group decision to give Democrats both the White House and greater advantages in both houses of Congress. They were saying that the majority trusted the Democrats more than the Republicans to repair the economy.

Consequently, I have been frustrated when Democrats have seemed to feel compelled to remind us of one of the primary reasons many of them now hold the offices they sought last year.

But now I have to wonder: Is it possible that it isn't their fault that their initial response always seems to be about who is to blame for the economic meltdown?

I'm not indulging in denial here. And I'm not letting the Democrats off the hook, either. I do not believe the Democrats have done nearly enough to encourage job creation.

And a big part of the reason for that is, as I say, every time I have asked what is being done about job creation, I get the same response — about how the bad economy is Bush's fault.

I have tended to brush that off as not answering the question. I guess I still do.

But today I saw an interesting item in the Los Angeles Times' "Top of the Ticket" blog. The Times' bloggers, Andrew Malcolm and Johanna Neuman, inform readers that they are re–publishing their favorite and/or most popular items from 2009 as they wind down the year. And today's item, apparently from mid–March, is about former Vice President Dick Cheney's insistence that Bush was not to blame, that it was "a global financial problem."

Now, perhaps I wasn't paying attention as closely as I should have, but, when Cheney made those remarks (more than a month after the passage of the stimulus package, by the way — which was touted by Democrats as being not the pork–laden package it is but a panacea for joblessness), was that the first time a Republican felt obliged to protest that Bush was blameless?

If it was, that seems to render the Democrats' constant assertion little more than self–serving grumbling — a smokescreen intended to divert attention from their failure to adequately address the most critical issue on their agenda.

But if it wasn't the first time — if the Republicans have been muttering that the economy wasn't Bush's fault ever since John McCain's concession speech — then perhaps the Democrats have been justified in reminding us why they are where they are.

But only as a prelude to answering the real question — and, in case they need to be reminded, that question is "What is being done to encourage job creation?"

Perhaps the subject of responsibility is one of those what–came–first–the–chicken–or–the–egg kind of questions.

Yes, the Republicans controlled Congress from 1995-2007, but even their greatest majorities paled in comparison to the ones the Democrats have enjoyed in both the House and Senate this year.

And that 60–seat filibuster–proof majority the Democrats coveted last year — and finally pieced together — is something Republicans never came close to achieving. You have to go back a century, to the days of Teddy Roosevelt, to find the last time the GOP held that many Senate seats.

So, if we're going to talk about blame, it seems to me the Democrats should be required to answer why they abdicated their responsibility when they were in the minority. Why did they permit costly measures to be voted on instead of filibustering them? Why did they allow an ill–conceived war plan to get the green light instead of filibustering it? They could have slammed the door on legislative debate on anything whenever they wanted. Why didn't they?

At the height of the Republicans' power right after Bush was re–elected, the GOP held only 55 seats in the Senate. Most of the time during the Bush years, the GOP held about half of the Senate seats. What prevented the Democrats from blocking anything that worried them when it reached the Senate floor?

It's too easy, too convenient to blame someone else for your own shortcomings.

And, as much as I loathe Cheney, I have to give him credit for hitting the nail on the head with an answer he gave CNN in the interview that was cited by the Times blog last March:

"So I think the notion that you can just sort of throw it off on the prior administration, that's interesting rhetoric but I don't think anybody really cares a lot about that. What they care about is what is going to work and how we are going to get out of these difficulties."

Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas

It is Christmas morning.

And I know you've got things to do and people to visit so I'll just wish you a Merry Christmas — and give you this little gift.

This won't take long. I only ask a few minutes of your time. And then you can be about your business.

I think the true power of Christmas is that, no matter what your circumstances may be, no matter how hopeless or alone you may feel, you don't have to do anything special to find Christmas. You do not have to go out of your way to find it. It finds you.

You can even try to hide from it. It will still find you.

Sadly, such a feeling is fleeting. The hope and joy we feel on Christmas morning may well be gone tomorrow.

I don't know if there is any truth to any of the stories I heard about Christmas when I was a boy. Maybe most are tall tales — like the one about Santa Claus traveling all the way around the world on Christmas Eve — that we stop believing at some point as we get older.

As a child, I remember being told that animals can speak at midnight on Christmas Eve. One year, I resolved to put it to the test. I got up out of bed shortly before midnight and found the family dog sleeping in the living room. I woke her, and I waited with her until long after midnight. She was a patient, faithful companion, and she licked me on the cheek several times that evening. But she never said a word to me. I concluded the story wasn't true.

On the face of it, the story of Jesus' birth seems almost as preposterous. I remember when I was about 6 or 7, and my Sunday school class was talking about Jesus' birth — and the three wise men and the angels singing and the star shining on the manger and all that. And I remember asking myself, How did Mary and Joseph sleep with the angels singing and the light from the star shining on them all night?

Well, Christmas has survived two millennia in spite of such mysteries. And it brings with it a special feeling, but it is a feeling that doesn't seem to last beyond the opening of the gifts and the consuming of Christmas dinner.

Have you ever seen someone who dodged a bullet — survived some sort of accident or disaster that should have been fatal or was clinically dead and then was revived? Many go through periods during which they savor the flavor of every grain of salt or the sight of the rich hues of every sunrise and sunset. They overcompensate for taking things for granted. Never before had life been as precious to them, but, eventually, their intensity wanes and they go back to taking things for granted.

That is the only comparison that comes to mind.

I guess people can get into the "Christmas spirit" for awhile, but most cannot sustain it the whole year. For many folks, it seems to be enough of a challenge to maintain the feeling until Christmas itself. And that is understandable. It is a lofty feeling. It takes a lot of effort to maintain that altitude.

Some people would say that "effort" is really faith misnamed. And that, I suppose, is an entirely different discussion. It seems to me that "effort" may not have much to do with what you actually believe, but rather with something you want others to think you believe. "Faith," on the other hand, has to do with something you accept without hesitation. It is a part of you, as natural as breathing. It requires no special effort.

Faith can be a hard thing to hold on to in these turbulent times. But, while we have that feeling on this Christmas morning, I want to share some music that is adequate to the moment. I wanted to find voices that were majestic enough to express it, and I honestly think Luciano Pavarotti and Trisha Yearwood give fresh life to a tune I'm sure you've heard dozens of times this year alone.

Anyway, pretend you're hearing this for the first time.

And you will believe, if only for a minute, that redemption is possible. That is the real power of Christmas.

To my friends, old and new, I wish you a Merry Christmas, and I pray the new year brings us all reason to believe again in hope and joy that lasts longer than a single day.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Health Care Passes; Can We Create Jobs Now?

In a party–line vote, the Senate approved health care reform today.

As Robert Pear observes in the New York Times, this is something Democrats have been trying to do for decades.

Well, in most of those years, the unemployment rate was about half what it is today.

Now, I know health care reform is important, but, as I understand it, this legislation (once the House and Senate agree on the shape of the bill) is not going to go into effect until 2013. I've heard that it will create jobs — and that is a good thing, but I hope our leaders are planning to do more about joblessness in the next four years than wait for health care reform to pick up the slack.

I have more than just a passing interest in this. I am one of the millions of unemployed, as my regular readers already know, and if I am in the position of having to choose between paying my rent and paying for health insurance, I'm going to choose to keep a roof over my head. It's the mother of all no–brainers.

So, Mr. President and Democrats in Congress, the choice is yours.

At some point, the people in charge must decide on their priorities. What are yours?

Are you going to continue to pass the buck and excuse your inaction by blaming the previous administration?

Or are you going to start doing things to encourage job creation?

If you need more incentive, the clock to the midterm elections is ticking ...

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

American Excess

Yesterday, I wrote about Alabama Rep. Parker Griffith's decision to switch from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party.

Well, it's a slow news week. And political writers, who may be tired of writing about health care reform or simply have nothing else about which to write, are eagerly continuing to share their thoughts on the matter today.

It seems a bit excessive to me. I mean, there are other things to write about — and I'm not talking about just the health care reform vote that now appears to be scheduled for tomorrow morning in the Senate.
  • At the Christian Science Monitor, Patrik Jonsson wonders if other Democrats will follow suit.

    "Mr. Griffith's defection could put pressure on other conservative and even moderate Democrats, especially in the Deep South, to jump ship to save their seats," Jonsson writes. "They've been encountering backlash from the public against a Democrat–controlled progressive agenda in Washington."

    That's possible. I wrote a little about the history of party allegiance in the South yesterday. And Southern Democrats may need to compare their own political philosophies against the agenda of the national party and see if they have more in common with their national colleagues or their constituents. That may even be necessary for Democrats in the Southern states Barack Obama won in 2008.

  • Patricia McCarter writes, in the Huntsville Times, that Griffith wasn't comfortable as a Democrat.

    But the Republican who lost to Griffith, Wayne Parker, seems to be skeptical about that. "What's changed?" he asked. "In 2008 [Griffith] ran proudly as a Democrat, he had a history with the Democratic Party, he knew what it stood for, and he took money from Democratic national leaders, including [House Speaker Nancy] Pelosi. They're doing exactly what they said they'd do.

    "Now the environment isn't looking so good for Democrats, and it strikes me as odd that he now decides the party isn't what he wants."

  • In an editorial, the Decatur Daily said it wasn't surprised by the switch.

    "Since winning a heated and often nasty general election contest ... former Democrat Griffith has consistently voted with Republicans on big issues such as health care reform, economic stimulus and climate change legislation," the Daily wrote. "Griffith was a Democrat in name only."

  • Peter Wallsten reports, in the Wall Street Journal, that Republican strategists don't anticipate more defections, but they are hopeful that Griffith's switch "will bolster their attempts to persuade at least nine other long–time Democrats to retire."
I understand why there is so much focus on Griffith's decision. But unless it starts a virtual avalanche of defections, I don't see much significance to it.

Even Parker's comments about Griffith and his history with the Democratic Party can be explained as sour grapes from a man who lost last year's House race by less than 10,000 votes.

At the moment, though, there are other intriguing political stories to write about. For example:
  • The Quinnipiac University Poll reports that Obama's approval rating stands at 46%.

    Since I have written frequently in recent months about the problems that the parties of Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan — the last two presidents who inherited recessions — encountered in the midterm elections, it may be helpful — for comparison's sake — to see how that figure stands up against the findings for Clinton and Reagan at comparable points in their first years in office.

    Clinton was far short of 50% when he won the 1992 election against President George H.W. Bush and independent Ross Perot, and his Democrats lost control of both houses of Congress in 1994, but in mid–December 1993, his approval ratings offered no hint of the calamity that was to befall his party less than a year later. Three separate polls — NBC/Wall Street Journal, ABC/Washington Post and Gallup/CNN/USA Today — had Clinton's approval rating in the mid–50s.

    Reagan barely exceeded 50% in the 1980 election when he defeated President Jimmy Carter and independent John Anderson, but the Republicans captured the Senate for the first time in more than 20 years and gained nearly three dozen House seats. Two years later, the Senate breakdown was virtually unchanged, but the Democrats retook more than two dozen House seats.

    There may have been a little more warning of the difficulties Reagan's party would face in mid–December of 1981, but Reagan was in better shape than Obama. At that time, Gallup reported Reagan's approval rating was 49% — almost unchanged from where it stood less than two weeks after Reagan's inauguration but nearly 20 points below the level he reached after being the victim of an assassination attempt in March.

    In Obama's case, the numbers may not be cause for panic — yet — but 46% approval in December represents a sharp decline from his presidential high–water mark of 76% in a CNN poll in February, and graphic representations of Obama's approval/disapproval show a consistent trajectory in both numbers that, left unchecked, suggest that he will be in negative territory in early 2010.

  • Meanwhile, Jonathan Chait of The New Republic insists on beating that mangy — and probably long dead by now — horse, "It isn't Obama's fault."

    In fact, his lead paragraph makes his feelings clear: "President Obama is like a pilot who took the controls of the plane in mid–flight after the engines fell out. It's obvious that he didn't cause the problem. But the passengers are going to focus on the fact that the plane was still airborne before he took over, and now, he's crash–landing in the ocean."

    I know there are several writers out there who enjoy playing the blame game, presumably because it gives them another opportunity to flog George W. Bush, but recently I wrote about a New York Times poll of unemployed Americans that reported that about 3% of respondents blamed Obama for joblessness.

    They were less charitable when asked a different question — how is Obama handling unemployment? Forty–seven percent approved, 44% disapproved.

    I don't know how many times this has to be pointed out to Obama's apologists before it penetrates their bullet–proof skulls, but Obama is being judged on his actions. Voters seem to understand that a president cannot choose the circumstances that exist when he takes office, but he can control what he does about them. The fact that the unemployed are split over his record in fighting joblessness after nearly a year in office speaks volumes.

  • Jonathan Martin and Ben Smith suggest in Politico that Rudy Giuliani's decision not to seek statewide office in New York in 2010 "likely brings down the curtain on a fading political career."

    It's hard for me to believe this is the man my brother favored for president three years ago — but he ended up leaving Giuliani for much the same reason as others — described by Martin and Smith as "his defining moment — the Sept. 11 attacks — was reduced to a one–liner about a one–trick candidate."

    Am I the only one who thinks Giualani's decision deserves more attention than it has received?
There's a lot more going on these days than health care reform and Parker Griffith's party switch.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Off You Go

There was a time in my life when I watched Frasier faithfully, every week.

My interest sort of waned for awhile, and I missed some really good episodes, but I've gotten caught up through DVDs and syndicated reruns.

Anyway, I've been noticing something recently that I never really noticed before. If someone wrote an article about it that I missed during my hiatus, I'd like to read it because, to my knowledge, no one has ever discussed it.

I'm talking about Frasier's propensity for saying "Off you go" as a way of dismissing his conversation partner(s). I'm not sure if it qualifies as a genuine signature phrase, though.

When I think of signature phrases that have been associated with certain TV characters, I think of Archie Bunker saying "Stifle!" or J.J. saying "Dyn–O–Mite!" I think of Fred Sanford clutching his heart and acting like he was having a heart attack, then saying to the spirit of his late wife, "Hear that, Elizabeth? I'm coming to join you, honey!" I think of Walter Cronkite signing off his news broadcasts with "And that's the way it is ..."

I'm not sure what the cutoff point is, but I'm pretty sure Frasier didn't say "Off you go" frequently enough for it to qualify as his signature phrase. But he sure did say it a lot.

And, clearly, someone else did notice that Frasier used that phrase quite a bit. I was able to find the attached video compilation with no trouble at all.

Anyway, for some reason, Frasier's phrase popped into my head when I heard today that Alabama Rep. Parker Griffith is jumping from the Democrats to the Republicans.

And I've been wondering what, if anything, it means.

In my experience, many elected officials switch parties because the party to which they belong is perceived to be on its way down and the other party is perceived to be on its way up. It's a politically expedient move. Consequently, I wonder: Is that the case in America today? After two election cycles that brought them a great deal of success, is this a preview of more losses to come for Democrats in 2010?

I've been saying for several months now that I believe Republicans will make gains in Congress next year — in part because the Democrats have picked off most of the low–hanging political fruit in the last two elections, in part because midterm elections almost always go against the party in power.

Politics may be more polarized in America today than it has been in most of my life so I find it hard to imagine mass defections from one party to the other. If you're a Democrat, you probably don't have much in common with Republicans and vice versa. There isn't much gray area.

But you have to understand a few things about the nature of politics in the South. For a long time, much of party preference in the South had its roots in the 19th century. Republicans engineered Reconstruction, and generations of Southerners held that against them. Democrats, on the other hand, advocated states' rights, which came to be seen as code for racial segregation.

Increasingly in the 20th century, there were progressive Democrats in the South, but the big–name Southern politicians were old–school Democrats, whose views were frequently seen as out of step with Democrats in the rest of the country. When Lyndon Johnson and the Democrats in Congress pushed through civil rights and voting rights legislation in the mid–1960s, Southern Democrats began turning to the Republican Party.

Today, I wonder if many Southern Democratic office–holders don't have more in common philosophically with the Republicans, and that may be part of the reason for Griffith's switch — although I wouldn't rule out political expedience. The freshman congressman narrowly won his House seat as a Democrat last year while John McCain carried the district with 61% of the vote.

Griffith was one of three Democrats to have voted against the health care bill, the stimulus measure and the cap–and–trade bill. My guess is that he is simply more comfortable in the Republican tent than he is in the Democratic tent.

But how comfortable will the residents of Griffith's district be with his conversion? That, I suppose, remains to be seen. Only once — for two years during Reconstruction — has a Republican, John Callis (at left), represented northeastern Alabama in the House, a portion of which is in the modern Fifth District that elected Griffith last year, even though the voters of the Fifth have supported Republican presidential nominees since 1980.

One of Griffith's Democratic colleagues from Alabama, Rep. Artur Davis, who is running for governor, told the Huntsville Times that he thinks Griffith's move is "ironic," considering how he was hammered by the Republicans last year, and warned that "his decision repudiates the hard work of many Democrats who sustained him."

We shall see if he can hold on to his seat as a Republican.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Passion of the Prez

Neal Gabler has a piece in the Boston Globe that I read this morning — and it's been on my mind all day.

Gabler makes the case that Barack Obama lacks passion — and I agree with him.

"Obama acts as if he were a Solomon who always chooses to cut the baby in half," Gabler writes. To be blunt, "Obama seems to be missing the passion gene."

Gabler reminds readers of a few things:

"[W]hat few seemed to foresee is just how diffident he would be, how unmoved he seems to be, at least publicly, by the plight of the jobless, those who are struggling to afford health care, or the soldiers who must fight our battles. You wonder what, if anything, can really get his dander up, which is not a good thing to wonder."

Certainly, it isn't a good thing to wonder about a president.

Gabler has some political and cultural excuses, even personal ones, for Obama's apologists to use in his defense.

"Obama may feel that he is so circumscribed by the Republican obstructionists that fighting more forcefully may not only be useless but counterproductive," he writes.

"Part of this may also be cultural. The last thing Obama wants to be perceived as is an angry black man, which may be why he feels he has to modulate everything he does, lest he give his enemies yet another point of attack. And part of it may be personal history. As the child of two idealistic but flighty parents whose heads were in the clouds, Obama seems to have made every attempt to be grounded. He is nothing if not calm, practical, and realistic — 'careful not to expect too much,' as he put it in Dreams from My Father."

I find it ironic that Gabler alleges that Obama has delivered the presidency that Michael Dukakis promised the American people two decades ago — "cautious, deliberative, reasonable, experienced, not terribly ideological and entirely competent."

In case you've forgotten, Dukakis was criticized during the 1988 campaign for being something of a dead fish. He lacked passion, it was said, especially when answering a hypothetical debate question about whether he would favor the death penalty if someone raped and murdered his wife.

Regardless of which end of the political spectrum they occupy, Americans like to know that their president believes in something, even if they don't agree with him. They want to feel that he is motivated by their best interests, and he will be their advocate. Gabler's most damning indictment of Obama, I think, is when he writes that George W. Bush did have passion.

"[T]he American people often don't care what a president is passionate about, so long as he is passionate," Gabler writes. "If George W. Bush had nothing else — and he didn't have much — he at least had that going for him. He might have been wrong, but he gave the sense that he wasn't about to be deterred. He knew that splitting the difference is not the road to presidential accomplishment. You must believe."

There were many occasions this time last year when I heard people refer to Obama as a latter–day FDR, a transformational figure poised to take the helm of the ship of state and guide it out of choppy waters. But there was a key difference between the two men, as Gabler observes.

FDR, he wrote, "was elected more on hope than on passion, but he quickly energized the nation, not by being temperate or lusting for compromise but by calling for boldness. There was something fearless about FDR. He didn't mince policies or words. When the economic interests opposed him, he said, 'I welcome their hatred.' Above all, he gave the sense that he cared deeply, that there were some initiatives too important to treat as if they were business as usual, that he wasn't about to go down without a fight. In short, he gave the sense that he had the passion of his convictions, which helped through political osmosis embolden the country as well."

It's my guess that played a big role in FDR being elected president four times.

It's also my guess that the absence of that passion may work against Obama in 2012.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

To Tell the Truth

Today is Herb Stempel's 83rd birthday.

If that name doesn't ring a bell for you, that isn't surprising, really. Stempel was a game–show contestant in the 1950s. And I guess his name would have no importance except for the role he played in the investigation that led to the quiz show scandals.

The occasion of his birthday calls for at least a brief retelling of his story.

Stempel, who is still living, was quite successful as a contestant on "Twenty One" — for a time. I've heard that he graded quite high on IQ tests. But he was a manufactured champion. He was coached on the answers and told how to look and sound by the show's producer. It was justified to him the way people today justify broadcasts of pro wrestling — everyone knows it isn't real, it's just entertainment (read: ratings).

The whole thing was driven by demographics, really. Stempel was told he had "plateaued," and the audience wanted someone else. In reality, the sponsor had decided the cause of entertainment (read: better ratings) demanded a new champion, and the successor was Columbia University English instructor Charles Van Doren (who is also still living and turned 83 earlier this year). The two had a series of tied contests that went on for weeks before Stempel finally took a dive at the producer's insistence in December 1956.

I suppose Stempel could have gone silently into that good night, but the producer had promised him a TV job in exchange for throwing the competition, and the promise was broken so Stempel went to the authorities and told them what he knew, and the whole matter was investigated in 1958 by the House Committee on Legislative Oversight, led by Arkansas Rep. Oren Harris.

Stempel had been portrayed as something of a sore loser until the hearings began and his charges held up. A few former contestants stepped forward to corroborate his claims, and one had sent registered letters to himself that contained the questions he would be asked before they were asked.

Then Van Doren himself appeared and told a stunned nation that he had been "deeply involved in a deception," and he confessed to receiving the answers in advance. Van Doren was hailed by the members of the committee for coming forward, but Rep. Steven Derounian, a New York Republican, had none of it.

"I am happy that you made the statement, but I cannot agree with most of my colleagues who commended you for telling the truth," Derounian said, "because I don't think an adult of your intelligence ought to be commended for telling the truth."

While the actions were morally and ethically questionable, they were not illegal (at that time) so no prison sentences were handed down. But, in the end, the producer of the show, Dan Enright, and host Jack Barry lost their jobs, and Stempel and Van Doren went on to somewhat quiet post–quiz show careers.

Nearly 40 years later, Robert Redford directed the film version of the scandal, "Quiz Show," which was nominated for four Academy Awards.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Dawn of a New Age

I guess it is hard to comprehend, here in the 21st century, what an amazing thing happened on the sand dunes of Kitty Hawk, N.C., on this day in 1903.

That was the day that Orville and Wilbur Wright made their first engine–powered flights, covering only a few hundred feet in a matter of seconds but hastening the day when man was no longer confined to earthbound modes of transportation.

In fact, in a relatively short period of time, aeronautics evolved to give us jet propulsion. Not long after that, man was building rockets and sending them into outer space in his never–ending quest to see what lies beyond the next hill.

In my lifetime, we have progressed from astronauts splashing down in the ocean in cramped capsules to crews twice as large landing on airstrips aboard reusable space shuttles.

It all began with those tentative baby steps on chilly, windswept dunes.

The Wright brothers truly changed the world on that December day 106 years ago.

That may be worth remembering next week if you find yourself delayed at an airport.

California Dreamin'

There are six months to go until the gubernatorial primaries are held in California, but a new poll from the Public Policy Institute of California indicates that Meg Whitman, the former CEO of eBay, leads in the race for the Republican nomination.

Not too early for a little California dreamin' on such a winter's day.

It isn't an insurmountable lead. Whitman got 32%, which is a 20–point lead over her closest rival, but the survey indicates that most Californians aren't paying much attention to the race right now. My guess is that, right now, it is a name recognition contest at the very least, a popularity contest at the most. Still, I'm sure that any candidate who wants to win an election in a place like California would rather be recognized by the voters at this stage than not.

Whitman, the presumptive heir to Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who (as I understand it) is barred by law from seeking another term, is the only Republican who runs neck and neck with former Gov. Jerry Brown, according to Rasmussen Reports.

Brown, by the way, was governor for two terms in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Because of the timing of his terms in office, the term limits that went into effect in 1990 do not apply to him.

Brown is an interesting fellow. He burst onto the national scene as a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1976 after the primary campaign was under way, which meant he had missed the deadline in many states, but he managed to win a few primaries and made an initial splash with young voters as the boyfriend of singer Linda Ronstadt. While he was governor, Brown proposed buying a satellite that could be put into orbit to provide emergency communications capabilities for California — earning the nickname "Governor Moonbeam" from Chicago Sun–Times columnist Mike Royko.

But Brown is no flake. A lawyer with a degree from Yale Law School, Brown is currently California's attorney general. That satellite proposal of his may have been ridiculed by Royko in the 1970s, but the state ultimately followed his recommendation.

So the last laugh was his.

And he will be a tenacious foe when the voters are paying attention.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Jumping the Gun

The Daily Kos just can't resist the bait.

Of course, CNN helped.

Apparently, Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman hasn't decided whether he will be a Democrat, a Republican or an independent when he seeks re–election in 2012.

Based on Dana Bash's report for CNN, Lieberman says it is "unlikely" that he will run as a Republican.

"I like being an independent, so that's definitely a possibility," he said. "But I'd say all options are open."

Hmmm. Sounds to me like Lieberman hasn't made up his mind.

But Jed Lewison at the Daily Kos is eager to leap into panic mode, calling it a "kick in the groin" for Democrats who have counted on Lieberman to give them their filibuster–proof majority.

That doesn't really hold up when someone from the majority threatens to support a filibuster, though, does it?

Isn't all this talk about Lieberman's plans for 2012 a bit premature? Democrats appear likely now to lose ground in Congress in 2010. They may lose seats in the House or the Senate or both. If they lose even one seat in the Senate — and I discussed several seats that were in jeopardy a few days ago — they will lose their filibuster–proof majority, anyway.

That's when they will need to decide whether they want Lieberman to remain in their caucus — or if they would prefer to recruit top–notch Democrats to run for Republican–held or open Senate seats in 2012.

Until then, they may not like having him in their caucus, but he agrees with them on most issues and will make many things easier to achieve because he is on their side.

For the long haul, though, Lieberman may be too much of a loose cannon for Democrats' tastes (which is saying a lot) — but, really, is Arlen Specter less of one? And Specter will face the voters next year.

Lewison, without the slightest shred of evidence that Lieberman's defection to the Republican Party is in any way likely, concludes that "[e]very day that Joe Lieberman remains a member in good standing of the Democratic caucus is yet another day that Joe Lieberman makes Democrats look stupid."

Actually, Democrats don't need Lieberman's help to look stupid these days. For that matter, neither does Lewison.

Well, I guess they need something to moan about, now that the New York Times has published survey results that show the unemployed do not blame Barack Obama for the bad economy — but the results are decidedly mixed when they're asked how he is handling job creation.

Until there is improvement in that category, Democrats can rant all they want about Lieberman. The perception will continue to be that they have abdicated their responsibility to the jobless.

And perception, like it or not, is reality.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

At Long Last, Panic

The Democrats baffle me — and I've been a Democrat all my life.

Rich Lowry writes at the National Review about how Democrats, under Barack Obama, "have perfected the 'impatient style' ... a headlong rush to a slapdash social democracy, justified by whatever arguments happen to be at hand and effected by whatever means necessary."

To me, "impatient" suggests an unwillingness to listen to those who disagree — even when the disagreement is really a matter of a few degrees. And, instead of listening to constructive criticism that might make a good but flawed idea (to, say, promote job creation) better, the Democrats insist on answering a question that was not asked.

It was Bush's fault.

Well, Michael Luo and Megan Thee–Brenan did ask that question in a good overview of joblessness for the New York Times — although, as the article makes clear, the long–term unemployed aren't worried about history. They just want someone to do something to deliver them from their nightmare.

"In terms of casting blame for the high unemployment rate," they write, "26 percent of unemployed adults cited former President George W. Bush; 12 percent pointed the finger at banks; 8 percent highlighted jobs going overseas and the same number blamed politicians. Only 3 percent blamed President Obama."

And now a sense of panic seems to be settling in.

Perhaps the Democrats, rigidly obsessed as they seem to be with assigning blame, are starting to get the message. Voters don't blame Obama for the economy. They elected him to do something about it, as the writers for the Times make clear in their next paragraph.

"Those out of work were split, however, on the president's handling of job creation, with 47 percent expressing approval and 44 percent disapproval."

It's hard to make the case that anything has been done about unemployment when joblessness has risen to double figures.

The Democrats remind me, more and more, of the Black Knight from "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" — unwilling to yield until all his limbs had been cut off and he was forced to seek the best possible result from a bad situation that was of his own making.

I pray they get the message before it is too late and they have to say to the Republicans, "All right, we'll call it a draw."

Monday, December 14, 2009

Soon It Will Be Christmas Eve

Next week is Christmas Eve.

In households all over America — indeed, all over the world — there will be a certain excitement in the air. I remember that feeling. I often long for it. But it has left my life, probably forever.

You know, it's true what they say about Christmas. It has become the very definition of commercialism. And it's also true that the Christmas hype gets started earlier every year. Perhaps this has something to do with the economy, but I think a lot of it is just plain old–fashioned greed because I've seen the same thing happening during boom times.

Well, I don't want to rant about Christmas commercialism the week before Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

Actually, what I'm going to write about today is my mother. She died in a flash flood in 1995.

I worked as a newspaper copy editor for many years. Among other things, it was my job to whittle down stories to make them fit the allotted space, and there were all sorts of ways to do that. Sometimes you might find a good synonym or a way to say in one word what originally called for three or four. But I don't think I could describe my mother in a single word.

I guess most people would say this about their mothers, but my mother had many talents. She was a first–grade teacher during much of her adult life, and I have long believed that it takes someone with special skills to captivate the imaginations of a room filled with 6–year–olds every day of every week for nine months. Mom did it well enough that she was recognized by others for her work.

After she died, we received many letters of condolence. One came from someone who knew Mom when she was a young girl but had been absent from her life when I was growing up so I wasn't familiar with him, but my father was. His letter included a couple of pictures of Mom as a teenager, hamming it up for the camera on a stage, and he shared his thoughts about her flair for the dramatic. He wrote that he believed Mom became a first–grade teacher because she couldn't be an actress.

Maybe that's so. I never asked Mom why she became a teacher. Maybe I should have. But maybe I didn't because the answer was always all around me. It was one of those questions that didn't need to be asked.

Mom didn't teach when my brother and I were small. She focused her attention on her home and family, and it was in the role of wife/mother/homemaker that she found ways to express her flair for the dramatic.

She always liked to decorate the house for the season. When I was about to turn 5 and my brother was not yet 2, we moved into the first home my parents owned. Christmas came along a couple of months later, and my mother's parents visited us in central Arkansas for the occasion. The picture at the left was taken during that visit.

In the years to come, we visited them in Dallas, sometimes waiting until Christmas Day before loading up the car and hitting the road. (That reminds me of a Christmas when our departure for Dallas was delayed because my brother and I had received Hot Wheels cars and a Hot Wheels track, and we wanted to play with them before we had to pack up the car and leave them behind for a week or so.)

I can't say that I remember that Christmas very well, but we sure look like we had a good time at Christmas dinner.

She always enjoyed having nativity scenes around the house. I remember the one in the picture at the right, but Mom preferred the ones with actual figurines, not the printed figures on cardboard backing or carved shapes. When my brother and I were in elementary school, Mom found a nativity scene in which the figure of the baby could be removed from the bed, and she would leave the bed empty through most of the Christmas season. Then, on Christmas morning, she would insist that the whole family go to the nativity scene to see "if Jesus had been born during the night" before proceeding to our stockings and the gifts under the tree.

Once we had confirmed that Jesus had, indeed, been born, the real festivities — as far as my brother and I were concerned — began. But Mom saw to it that the day started with an acknowledgement of what the day was supposed to be about — even if the emphasis rather rapidly turned to the toys and other goodies in our stockings and the packages.

You know how "B.F.F." is used as shorthand these days for "best friend forever?" Instantly recognizing what that stands for isn't automatic for me. I always have to stop and think about it because I have a different phrase in mind when I say "B.F.F." For me, it refers to my life "before [the] flash flood." The difference has been that profound — certainly as far as Christmas is concerned.

My family almost always spent the Christmas Eves "B.F.F." in the house in which my mother grew up. My grandmother continued to live there after my grandfather died, then my parents moved into the house and stayed there until my mother died.

On Christmas Eve, Mom tended to sleep later than anyone else in the family, then she would enter the living room where the rest of us were watching TV or reading the paper, and, with no prompting from anyone (with the exception, perhaps, of a "Good morning" greeting from someone), she would begin to recite a monologue she had committed to memory many years earlier from a Robin Hood record. In her childhood, she and her friends memorized the record and acted out the scenes that were described in it — and this particular monologue began, "It is Christmas Eve ..."

So, today, when I hear someone say, "It is Christmas Eve," I flash back to those Christmas Eve mornings in my grandparents' home. And I wish I could hear her say it one more time. Never fails.

Mom's flair for the dramatic always seemed to be on display at this time of the year. She stopped doing the nativity scene routine when my brother and I got older, but in the last Christmases of her life, she found a mechanical Rudolph the Red–Nosed Reindeer that, when properly equipped with batteries, would "walk" while nodding its head up and down.

Mom would treat Rudolph like a Magic 8–Ball, asking, "Are we going to have a good Christmas?" and then flicking his switch, prompting Rudolph's affirming nod.

Rudolph was always right. Maybe that was because the family was together.

We didn't really have Santa Claus in my home. We had Père Noël. And he wasn't played by my father. He was played by my mother.

She had a long flowing red robe that she would put on with a fake white beard, and she was transformed into "Père Noël," speaking — and even laughing — in an exaggerated Inspector Clouseauesque French accent.

I guess that wasn't too surprising. Mom loved the "Pink Panther" movies. No matter how many times she saw Peter Sellers play the bumbling French detective, it made her laugh. I often felt that she played Père Noël primarily to make the rest of us laugh, and she succeeded.

Eventually, Père Noël branched out, making holiday appearances at Mom's school. But the act had been perfected on my father, my brother and me.

It's hard to believe, but this will be my 15th Christmas without Mom — or Rudolph or Père Noël. In hindsight, I guess I should have been preparing myself for the inevitable. But even though I knew that no one lives forever, I never gave any thought to what my life would be like when my parents were gone. And then, when it happened, I was unprepared.

So my Yuletide advice to you, dear reader, is this: Be thankful for the people in your life while you have them. They can be taken from you without notice.