Monday, November 30, 2009

November 30, 2009--Stop the Madness

On Tuesday evening Barack Obama will make his way to the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, New York to finally tell us in detail what he plans for Afghanistan.

Reports in the press indicate that he will lay out his objectives, including how to assess progress; set benchmarks for the corrupt Afghan government to meet in order to justify our commitment; call for at least 30,000 additional troops; and, according to this morning’s New York Times, establish a “time frame” for when we will begin to wind down our involvement. (Article linked below.)

Though polls show there is waning public support for this approach, though many in the media from both the left and right are critical of what appears to be his thinking, as commander in chief he has the power to do all of this and to demonstrate that he is willing to spend much of his remaining political capital making an unpopular decision.

I am sure he is feeling good about himself, that after all the charges of being too willing to compromise and spending so much time dithering, he will at last be acting boldly and decisively.

And, I would add, disastrously.

Even the untutored know the tortured history of Afghanistan, which is more an amalgamation of contesting tribes than an ancient nation with clear geographic and culture borders. It was a creation of the British and Russian Empires during the 100 year Great Game that took place in Central Asia between about 1813 and 1907 as the two powers contested for control of that region. And we as well as the president know that ancient and current Afghanistan has successfully resisted conquerors and potential occupiers ever since. First among others we should know this from our own history of meddling in the region—we helped the Mujahideen in Afghanistan defeat the Russians during the Cold War and then watched as they morphed into the Taliban, which we are now intent on defeating.

The Russians deployed many more troops there than even Bush and now Obama have been willing to commit, killed at least 1.0 million Afghans; but then, in spite of this—perhaps because of it--were ignominiously defeated. And partly as a result what remained of the Soviet Empire collapsed of its own weight.

So for Barack Obama to boast the other day during his press conference with the prime minister of India—and a macho boast it was—that he “will finish the job” flies in the face of at least 100 years of history and ignores both the nature of the problem and our capacity to deal with it militarily. Yes, we will hear tonight about how our objectives there are limited--we will not hear a word about the War On Terror—that the larger goal is to train the Afghan security forces and military so that they can control and defend their own country; and that we will focus as much on development aid as on building up our forces.

Don’t believe a word of it.

It will not be because Barack Obama will be intentionally lying to us (though I am certain we will hear a lot of geopolitical spin, including how he would not be committing more young men and women to fight and die in the region if he did not think conditions on the ground in Afghanistan and Pakistan threaten our security), we should not believe a word of what he says because it will ignore this history and does not deal with how it feels for a proud people to be defeated and occupied. Because surely that is what we and our allies have been doing—occupying, we claim for their own good, what we call Afghanistan.

I have been a fervent supporter of Barack Obama’s since the day he announced his run for the presidency; I have sat on the sidelines hoping for the best while watching as he and his administration bailed out Wall Street while not compelling the very institutions they saved with our money to forego unconscionable bonuses for themselves while refusing to help struggling businesses and homeowners; I have tried to rationalize his seeming inactivity as Congress grappled with how to get the votes needed to pass even a tepid version of health care reform, rationalizing that something is better than nothing; I have driven the interstates looking for all the shovel-ready projects to get started so that jobs could be created and seen very little action; but to watch the Vietnamizing or Afghanistan is more than I can sit still for. Than any of us should sit still for.

Is it too late to mobilize hundreds of thousands to march on West Point tomorrow evening? Can we organize to descend on that village of 7,138 and put our bodies on the line as Obama is about to put more bodies on the line to be broken in Afghanistan? We marched on Washington in the hundreds of thousands during the Vietnam War, but where are we now as we are about to embark of a version of the same failed policy?

Perhaps the irony that Obama will deliver his speech in the very same shelter of the army corps of cadets where George W. Bush in 2002 traveled to lay out his Doctrine which called for and justified preemptive wars, perhaps this politically tone-deaf choice of venue by Obama with its crushing policy parallels, will rouse us to action. Because if we and/or the Congress do not stop the madness it will consume us.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thanksgiving 2009--Best Wishes

Have a very happy Thanksgiving. There is much to feel good about but lots more to do. I give thanks, among other things, for those working so hard to heal the world.

I will return here on Monday, probably vowing never to eat any more cranberry sauce.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

November 25, 2009--Berlusconi & Qaddafi: Together At Last

From time to time, everyone in high office needs to take a break. Last night, for example, Barack Obama, facing a 10.2 percent unemployment rate, endless meetings about what to do next in Afghanistan, recalcitrant Democratic senators who vow they will scuttle any health care reform bill if it includes a public option, and sinking poll numbers, confronting these and other pressures and frustrations, President and First Lady Obama took time out to host Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at a lavish A-list state dinner for 338 in a huge tent on the White House lawn. Though it had to be a vegetarian dinner so as not to offend the prime minister, from reports, a good time was had by all.

So when I heard that Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, the Libyan leader for life would be visiting Italy, the land of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, I assumed that he was there to take a break from his own pressures. Not pausing to wonder what these might be, I suspected that if he wanted a chance to kick back, what better place to take in some great Renaissance art, knock down some of the best pasta imaginable, and in his spare time chat with Silvio about the recently concluded deal that calls for Italy, over ten years, to pay Libya $5 billion in restitution for Italy’s early 20th century colonial occupation of Libya. You remember that of course.

And yes, they might also get a chance to chat about oil. Which Libya has in abundance. In the spirit of the Brits who recently cravenly released from life in prison a Lockerbie airplane-bombing terrorist in order to secure a deal for Libyan oil (denying any connection of course) it was no surprise that one of the things Qaddafi offered Berlusconi in return for that $5 billion was a chance to secure oil contracts while also promising to cut down on the flow of illegal African immigrants who get to Italy via Libya.

And yes again, while sojourning in Italy, well aware of Silvio’s fun life style—one in which he hires hordes of prostitutes to entertain himself and his pals, at times spicing things up by including under-age girls--when a Rome modeling agency posted an advertisement for “tall, attractive party guests” for a soirée to be hosted by the Libyan prime minister, knowing the likely deal, according to the staid New York Times, 200 women answered the call to attend. (Article linked below.)

The women, all tall and between the ages of 18 and 35 (since no one younger than that was included and so Berlusconi declined his invitation), assembled in their party finest and, after being screened by metal detectors—one can never be too careful—they were whisked away into the night.

They should have known something was up when they were told that they would each receive only $75 for attending and in addition to being screened for weapons and body-bombs, they were also inspected to make sure no one’s dress was too short. They should have known that since skirt length wasn’t ever a concern of their own prime minister (quite the opposite) this was likely to be a different kind of affair. But, on the other hand, who knows what someone might find to be kinky.

Well, it did in fact turn out to be a very different kind of party.

Rather than being expected to dance topless at the pool while being plied with Champaign and lavish hors d’oeuvres, the women were led to a large tent and seated in rows where they were forced to wait for more than an hour for the colonel himself to appear. And when he did, he preached to them for 45 minutes about . . . Islam. And the role of women in the religion. Hoping to secure a few converts, he gave each a personal copy of the Koran and told them he would pay for them to go to Mecca if they would convert.

And, I almost forgot, he also gave them a copy of the Green Book, which outlines his political philosophy. Sort of his Going Rogue.

As I said, everyone has a different definition of kinky.

One thing the Times failed to report—how many took him up on his offer. Any guesses?

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

November 24, 2009--A Different Perspective

If you’ve been paying even casual attention to these, you could not help but notice that I have been raising questions about President Obama.

Is he being forceful enough in advancing the agenda he laid out so clearly and hopefully during the campaign? When it comes to health care legislation what does he really want? Is he committed to a public option or is he willing to sign anything Congress sends him so he can claim he was the first president since Lyndon Johnson to reform the system?

What was he up to during his recent trip to Asia? It was good to see he was paying attention to the region after eight years of neglect by the Bush administration, but what did he actually achieve? After so much bowing to the Japanese, what happened in China? He seemed unwilling to make any demands on the leadership there in return for various U.S. concessions. Yes, they are our bankers and we will need them to lend us more money during the coming decade, but how about a word about human rights? How about receiving unfettered access to the Chinese media? He met with a handpicked group of university students who asked him pat questions—an event that was not televised throughout the country—and he wasn’t allowed to hold a press conference. Not impressive it felt to me.

And speaking of Asia, what is going on with regard to Afghanistan? Dick Cheney called it “dithering”; and I, help me, have been thinking that he may just have gotten this one thing sort of right.

None of this has been seeming very presidential. Not the change I enthusiastically voted for.

Even my 101 year-old mother—an early and fervent supporter of his—has been getting into the act, raising questions about the effectiveness of his leadership and how out of touch he appears to be with average Americans who are still very much hurting more than a year after his election.

But then there is the perspective of a friend who goes back about as far as I and has had through the years an excellent record of sensing trends in the political culture of the country. Before anyone I knew, for example, he not only recognized Obama’s talents but also foresaw the likelihood that he would be elected. He does not allow himself to be distracted by day-to-day instant analyses of who’s up and who’s down but rather sees things in broader, generational terms.

So last night over dinner I was eager to get his views of Obama’s first ten months in office.

He felt that things were going rather well. He calmly reminded me about all the extraordinarily difficult problems that Obama inherited. “I know,” he said, “that most people by now are getting tired of hearing him talk about the legacy of ‘the previous eight years.’ But though that understandably might be the emotional and political case—that by now we would like to see more problems solved at home—they are so complex and deeply rooted that it will take much more time to chip away at things much less change them than even one term in office will allow.”

“I agree with that,” I said, “but shouldn’t he be more forceful about what he wants from Congress and our allies and trading partners?”

“He is a different kind of person, a different kind of leader. He sees what that kind of blustery leadership has achieved—economic precariousness and a disenchantment with America among even our friends. He realizes how difficult and complicated it is to get Congress as it is currently constituted to pass transformative legislation. Or any legislation. Things are so partisan, special interests are so powerful, that to reach any sort of consensus, even among Democrats, is daunting.

“So, for example, to leave health care legislation to the Congressional leaders, though it is messy and it looks as if he is indifferent, may very well be the one strategy that has a chance to succeed. And getting even a flawed bill passed may not only be as much as can be expected but may actually do some significant good. Just as though Medicare and Medicaid were and are flawed look how much benefit they have provided to the elderly and indigent.”

“You may be right about this. But what about Afghanistan and the way he appears to be ineffective with, say, China and Japan?”

“I see the same things operating. His is a new and refreshing way. Perhaps just what is needed. We are no longer either the hegemonic military or economic power. At the end of the Cold War many felt that there would be a Pax Americana that would result of our unquestioned power and inclusive values, but that view turned out to be very short lived. Faced with terrorism and insurgencies, our vaunted might has turned out to be ineffective and of course our near economic collapse has shown that our form of capitalism is not a viable model for most of the rest of the world. In fact, even our cultural and ideological power has been shown to be compromised and inappropriate for most people and nations.”

“So you are agreeing with me.”

“Perhaps with your diagnosis but not your pessimistic views about Obama. If you hold on for a moment, let me complete my thought—about how the ways in which he has been acting domestically, in this new collaborative mode, is consistent with his view of diplomacy.”

“Go on.”

“I both cases he is displaying patience in the face of seemingly intractable problems. He knows none of these can be quickly or easily solved. Much repair work needs to be done before anything significant can occur. Trust needs to be reestablished. In regard to our role in the larger world, perhaps trust has to be established for the first time in nearly a century as we move into our own version of a post-colonial role.”


“And in order to do so, to begin to achieve this, Obama appears to have decided to spend down some of his national and global political capital. Even at the risk of appearing to be weak and indecisive. Though many here are eager for certainty—for a leader who will tell them what to think and do (take note of Sarah Palin’s current popularity)—Obama is neither inclined to offer this nor does he believe it to be the best way to lead. His is an entirely different approach. He seems to be willing to build trust in others by actually trusting them. Not necessarily naively but with an understanding that they as well as he and we are always motivated largely out of self-interest.

“By doing this he is showing respect, rather than arrogance, because I feel he both respects others—or at least doesn’t underestimate them—and recognizes the roles that everyone needs to play to reach reconciliation and mutually-beneficial consensus.

“Remember, he is not only our first African-American president but is also our first Asian or Pacific president. He was born in Hawaii and spent formative years in Indonesia. So he combines within himself some of the cultural qualities he assimilated from those early years. It is of course dangerous to oversimplify what it means to be at least in part ‘Asian,’ but one thing that characterizes what that might mean is an understanding of the power or being yielding and indirect. And, make no mistake, these are powerful qualities. At least potentially so. And may turn out be in Obama’s case.”

As I suspected, he had given me some new things to think about, including what to order for dessert!

Monday, November 23, 2009

November 23, 2009--"A Different Kind of Change"

It may be a case of pre-holiday stress disorder, but though Sarah Palin Week may be over in calendar and media terms—coverage of her book tour will slip below the fold and follow reports about the president pardoning the Thanksgiving turkey—I am still worried about her political potential.

Frank Rich, in yesterday’s New York Times, had it right: though it is tempting to dismiss her as a Fox-media darling whose 15 minutes of fame is about to end, she will likely be around for much longer than that and her influence among an increasingly large segment of the population will persist.

Yes, Jay Leno and Jon Stewart have been having a field day at her expense, as have the fact checkers, and those they take on this way, who are as apparently shallow as she and who have meteoric moments in the public eye before fading to obscurity—where is Joe the Plumber these days—tend to be gone forever; but those most enthusiastic about their Sarah, and who may sustain her, are the burgeoning crowds driving and lining up for days, even in the cold weather, to catch a glimpse of her or spend 15 seconds in her electric presence as she scrawls her signature on the inner cover of Going Rogue. (Great title by the way.)

I’ve been having this ongoing fight with a friend about the nature of her appeal and her staying power. He’s with Jon Stewart, feeling that she is nothing more than an over-hyped celebrity who appeals to people in the same way that Paris Hilton or Lindsay Lohan did. How can anyone, he asks, as ill educated, as obviously empty and unintelligent, as inexperienced as Sarah Palin ever be taken seriously as a candidate for high national office, much less the presidency? He notes that she was plucked out of virtually nowhere by a desperate McCain team to liven up his dormant presidential bid. And that like the shallow star she is—all surfaces—she did provide that for a few weeks; but as soon as the public figured out that she was an empty vessel, her and their standing in the polls collapsed.

In response I say to my friend, I wish this were true. Though you are essentially right about her star power, and that much of it is the product of her raw attractiveness and inner energy and not her knowledge about or facility in dealing with the issues, you are missing, I say to him, both the level of frustration out in the country with the way all things are and how she by her very being is resonating with that and communicating, virtually without words, what these frustrated and angry people are feeling and want to hear. And that this is both powerful and potentially long lasting because the sources for this frustration and growing rage are not going away any time soon.

Her followers—and they are literally followers—will not wake up one morning to find themselves better educated or working higher-paying or more secure jobs; they will not see their houses again rising in value; in spite of promises they will see their taxes continuing to rise; they will see more people of color in the midst; their kids will keep getting pregnant; their husbands will keep beating on them; and the Glenn Becks of the world will continue to fire their fury.

When they look at those who purport to represent them—from the demagogues on the right to the cool, hyper-educated on the left—no one makes their hearts beat faster than Sarah. To them she is Everywoman. She wears her life on her sleeve and they see there a reality much like their own. And they do not resent her success. In fact, it is very much like what they would wish for themselves and which propels the most desperate and assertive to push their way onto the “Jerry Springer” and “Doctor Phil” shows. Or for that matter, “Oprah” or the “Today” show which in many ways are more of the same albeit of a seemingly higher level of self-exposure and exploitation.

Sarah just does it better and more successfully. But more important, as well reported the other day in the Times from her book tour (linked below), in her self-confidence and clear sense of certainty, she offers a seeming living contrast to the disappointments many are feeling with the last “celebrity” they elected president—Barack Obama.

As a firefighter in the crowd in Fort Wayne put it, “He can’t even make a simple decision about what to do in Afghanistan. We’ve got men and women fighting overseas. Either man up and fight the war to win it, or get out.”

We know that he is feeling that Sarah the moose hunter is man enough to man up to get that job done.

And like Obama, she speaks hope to despair. A woman standing for hours in the icy rain in Grand Rapids—another brilliantly selected venue for her tour—compared the two: “I’m looking forward to her giving me hope.” She paused, well aware of the Obama campaign tag line—“Hope you can believe in”—and then knowingly added with a smile, “But it’s a different kind of hope.”

She knows what she means by that and so should we. And we also need to pay attention to its power. Or the jokes will be less on Sarah Palin and more on us.

Friday, November 20, 2009

November 20, 2009--Day Off

I will be back on Monday.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

November 19, 2009--The Ladies of Forest Trace: Obama's Optics

“Yesterday at breakfast, one of the girls who reads the Times every day was very upset.”

It was my 101 year-old mother calling from Forest Trace, the retirement community in Florida where she lives. “About what, mom? The new breast cancer screening guidelines?”

“Not the guidelines, which are bad enough, but about how they are already being turned into yet another way to criticize Barack Obama.”

“I haven’t heard much about that yet, though it wouldn’t surprise me in the least.”

“So let me read you something from your favorite paper.” I could hear her thumbing through the copy she has delivered to her door every morning. “Here it is. Something David Camp, a Republican congressman from Michigan said. ‘Let the rationing begin. This is what happens when bureaucrats make your health care decisions.’ Then he said, the recommendations from the United States Prevention Services Taskforce, a government group, quote, ‘Foreshadows the role government would play in regulating insurance offerings under the health care bill passed by the House this month.’”

“I haven’t seen that yet but . . .”

“But nothing. It’s right here in black and white.”

“I believe you but as I said this is no surprise.”

“And then tomorrow we’ll hear about how this is another example of death panels. Remember them from the summer?”

“Indeed I do. But . . .”

“I told you not to 'but' me. There is no ‘but’ involved. If you read the reports about that force’s recommendations—to stop screening women younger than 50, unless they are in a high risk category—you will see that it is like a death panel.”

“But, mom . . . Sorry, I mean that’s not what they are saying.”

“They are. They acknowledge that early screening will save some lives, but not enough to justify all the misdiagnoses and tests that false readings lead to. And all the unnecessary anxiety these procedures cause. Which means that if doctors stop testing young women some will die whose lives could have been saved. But not enough, they say, to justify all the screening and testing and anxiety.”

“I see what you are . . .”

“Maybe yes or maybe no. So be quiet for a minute and we’ll see if you’re getting my point.” I knew enough to let her continue uninterrupted. “First of all it’s insulting to women that a major reason they’re changing the guidelines is because they want to protect us from anxiety. Women are very used to handling anxiety, thank you. Anyone who raised children while juggling a marriage and a job knows about anxiety and how to handle it.”


“And everyone already knows that the people happiest about these new recommendations are the health insurance companies. I can just hear the conversations up in Hartford where they all have their offices about how much money they'll be saving—or should I say how much more money they'll be making—if they stop paying for mammograms for 40 year-olds. And you know they will. Or at least to try to limit them.”

“I don’t doubt it. Just like how the pharmaceutical companies are racing to raise the prices they charge for drugs before any health care bill gets passed. That too was in the paper earlier this week.”

“I saw that too. We have to do something about this.”

“But what?”

“That’s really why I called. About what has to be done.”

“This I am interested in hearing because I'm feeling powerless.”

“To tell you the truth I have not been thinking so much about that, though you should keep writing about these kinds of things, but about Barack Obama. About what he should be doing.”


“You know I supported him from before the beginning.”

“I do know that, even before I switched from Hillary to him.”

“And that I still have high hopes for his presidency.”

“I know that as well. As do I.”

“But then you also know that the ladies here and I are beginning to feel concerned about him. About how effective he is being. I have been telling you that we are feeling he hasn’t been as forceful as we would like him to be. About many things, including health care, which he says is his number one priority.”

“I have heard you and the women express those concerns and I share many of them.”

“So we have here a perfect example of both the problem and what he might do.”

“Go on.”

“Was it last week when Congress in the House passed their version of the bill?”

“Yes it was.”

“And that to get enough Democrats to vote for it—and didn’t it squeak by by only one or two votes—they had to allow that Stupak person I think he is—you should only know the name we have for him here—they allowed him, one of the Democrats who does not believe in abortions, to pass an amendment saying that no taxpayer money, not one penny of it, can be spent to support any aspect of an abortion?”

“Yes, it seemed Nancy Pelosi had to agree to that to get the votes she needed.”

“So what happened in just ten days—first that amendment and now these breast cancer guidelines. Two terrible things for women. You know that I never burned my bra or anything like that—though two of my sisters were Suffragettes—but this is enough to make me want to get out and protest. If I didn’t have such trouble with my hip.”

“I believe you would and wish you were able to.”

“Well, I can’t. But this is not about me but about President Obama. What has he done about this?”

“He did say something after the Stupak amendment was passed.”

“Yes, from Asia or wherever he was about how this is a health care not an abortion bill. He or his people knew this amendment was going to be debated and voted on. So why didn’t he say anything about it, condemn it in advance rather than after it had been passed?”

“That’s a very good question.”

“Yes it is. So here’s another one for you—what has he said so far about the breast cancer screening recommendations? From a government taskforce?”

“I haven’t heard anything yet. He’s still in China or Korea.”

“My point exactly. All of this is happening and what is he doing?”

“He’s on a long-planned trip to important countries in Asia. Not everything is about domestic policies. It’s very important, after the past eight years, to . . .”

“There were no urgent meetings there. And it doesn’t help that on the same day those guidelines were announced he was pictured strolling along the Great Wall of China. People are losing jobs, Harry Reid is having trouble getting the 60 votes he needs to consider a health care plan, women who were essential to electing him are being attacked, and he is off there halfway around the world. On the other side of the Date Line so when it’s Thursday morning here its midnight Friday over there. Talk about looking like he's out of touch.”

“But you know he’s working the telephones with Congress and is probably not sleeping at all so he can do his business there while keeping on top of things here.”

“Of course I know that. No one would say he isn’t working very hard. But that’s not the point. There are those optics involved.”

“Those what?”

Optics, as they say on CNN. How in politics, and I am talking now about the politics of getting things done, it is as much about how things seem as what is actually happening. The optics of the situation. I like that expression.”

“I agree with their political importance.”

“Well, I am sad to say, and all the girls here agree with me, that at the moment he is not looking good. From the optics it looks as if he's not in charge.”

“What would you have him do? And, again, I’m not disagreeing with you.”

“First of all he should have stayed home and sent Joe Biden to Asia, saying that things at Fort Hood and in Congress and with the decision to try those 9/11 terrorists in a court in New York and of course with the economy, that so many urgent things are happening at the same time that he needs to stay close to home to be able to work on them directly.”

“I agree with all of that.”

“And we need to hear him condemn the Stupak amendment in no uncertain terms and tell women—and the men and children and other women in their lives—that he disagrees about changing those screening recommendations and that he will reject them so that no more women than is absolutely unaviodable will die from cancer.”

“I wish he would do just what you're saying.”

“Or, and mark my words, unless he does something like this it will be the end of any possibility of reforming health care and will doom his presidency before it's even a year old. The Republicans and conservative Democrats will see to that.”

“I wish he would come to Forest Trace for a day and meet with you and the ladies. I think it would do him a world of good.”

“And we’d be sure he gets something good to eat. He’s much too thin.”

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

November 18, 2009--Sarah Reflectus

This is Sarah Palin week.

While President Obama is away in Asia getting beat up by some for too much literal bowing and scraping in Japan and China (how, after all, is he supposed to behave when visiting our bankers?) and Senate leader Harry Reid is dithering with his version of a health care bill, Going Rogue (deep discounted to $9.00 at Wal-Mart) hit the stands and jumped right to the top of the bestseller list. And, in case you’ve been out of town, she’s been all over TV with Oprah and Barbara. Then, yes, the media elite has been in full mock, fact checking her every statement while continuing to have lots of fun at her and her Dogpatch family’s expense.

As so here, thus far, have I.

Yes it’s true that she can’t seem to stop herself from not telling the truth. Even about minor things such as her claim right after she was plucked out of Wasilla that she had her children vote whether or not to accept John McCain’s invitation to join him on the ticket (it was a unanimous “Yes”) which she totally contradicted the other day on Shawn Hannity’s Fox News show. Or about more important things such as her foreign policy qualifications—how, she claimed, yesterday that she had never said she was fit to confront the Russians since she could see them from Alaska while to Charlie Gibson, on ABC, early during the campaign she said that very (funny) thing.

We can fact check her all day and find something on almost every page that either doesn’t make sense or is an untruth, and God knows what Tina Fey will come up with for Saturday night. But as Maureen Dowd points out in her column in today’s New York Times (attached below), the subtitle of Going Rogue (which you can order from Newsmax for only 4 bucks) is An American Life. And, without dissembling or unintended irony it truly is just that—a quintessential early 21st century American life.

And we had better stop chuckling and take it and her seriously if we don’t want to wake up in three years to find her or someone like her snowmobiling on the White House lawn.

If this seems inconceivable to you look back just a few years and recall how a very junior senator from Illinois was doing in the presidential polls. Yes, at the moment 60 percent of Americans do not want Sarah Palin to be president, but that suggests up to 40 percent potentially do. If my arithmetic is correct that means she would have to convince only a little more than 10 percent to change their minds about her to be, help us, elected. Barack Obama at an equivalent stage in his run for the presidency had a lot more convincing to do.

OK, I can hear you saying that you know Barack Obama and Sarah Palin in no Barack Obama.

I agree but they do have at least one very important political thing in common—their innate ability to provide us with a reflective surface upon which we can project our hopes and fears. And from that surface we can take away what we want to see in them and in ourselves.

Recall that Barack Obama was spoken about in just this way—if we yearned for a president with high intelligence, we saw that in him; if we yearned for fundamental change, he radiated that possibility; if we wanted to demonstrate how tolerant we and our county had become since Jim Crow days, in his calm post-racialist demeanor we saw that and could embrace his non-threatening version of otherness.

In these and other ways he was perfect for our times and we collectively took the plunge into the relative unknown and decided to trust him for what we knew by the time Election Day arrived was a perilous time.

Enter Sarah Palin.

Many now look at her and see reflected back their own lives--the frustration, the anger, and the hope for their version of a restored America. They do not care if she did or did not poll her children before responding to John McCain. They do not care if she buys her clothes in Wasilla thrift shops or Saks. They don’t care if she reads anything at all. They don’t see it as hypocritical that while she preaches about God’s will and abstinence she has an “illegitimate” grandchild. (Many of them do as well.) And they don’t care that she appears to be untouched by education—that too reflects their reality since they feel imbued by something even more important: common sense

They do not care if she can or cannot see Russia from her house or even locate it on a map. They sense in her the same kind of no-shit attitude that they feel characterizes them. They feel that if Russia or Iran or North Korea or the Chinese get further out of hand, just as they’d like to do, she’d have the balls to nuke ‘em back to the Stone Age.

There would be an end to dithering, an end to pandering to immigrants and other minorities who are not real Americans, the government would get out of our lives and pockets, and they would have their America back. That can-do place that built highways and dams and skyscrapers and cars that were the envy of the world and won every war it ever entered.

To tens and tens of millions of Americans, who in their bones feel we have lost our way and our primacy, they look at Sarah Palin’s shiny surface and see themselves reflected back and the promise of change they can believe in.

So along with our week of having fun at her expense, let’s also spend some time thinking about her appeal and how we can get our version of America back. If we can manage to figure that out, it will actually and ironically be especially good for the very people who are currently lining up to buy her book and show up at her rallies.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

November 17, 2009--Bad Politics

Yesterday morning on MSNBC's "Morning Joe," the the often intemperate Joe Scarborough was engaged in a civil conversation with Jon Meacham, editor of Newsweek who was there to hump this week's issue which features a picture of Sarah Palin on the cover in short-shorts.

To their credit, they held off discussing the author of Going Rogue until they had a rather good go-round about Attorney General Eric Holder's decision to try Kalid Sheikh Mohammed and four others accused of masterminding the 9/11 attacks in federal court as opposed to hauling them before a military tribunal.

Not much of a surprise, Scarborough made the case for using tribunals while Meacham, a Pulitzer Prize winning presidential historian in addition to his Newsweek day job, spoke with his usual eloquence about the importance of showing the world that America was still America, especially after four years of George Bush, and that to try them in open court with all their rights protected was both in our global interest as well as the constitutional thing to do.

But, Joe said, isn't it bad politics for the Obama administration, which is already suffering from the perception that they are dithering about what to do in Afghanistan while appearing to be weak by not exerting sufficient political muscle to get their agenda through the Democratic Congress?

Meacham shrugged his shoulders and said, "Duh," meaning of course the decision to try them that way is bad politics. Unspoken was his feeling that at such big moments it's more important to make tough if unpopular decisions than pander to the lowest public common denominator.

This reminded me that during the presidential campaign, while promising to bring about fundamental change, candidate Obama made the point that he would rather be a one-term president than compromise his principles.

It is my feeling and advice to him that he rack up the video tape of that speech and one of these nights replay it for himself. And soon.

Because many from his base (progressives such as I) as well as the independents who more than we elected him, are getting restive. We are not seeing him taking on the banks who are about to give themselves unheard-of end-of-year bonuses (funded with our money), fighting openly for whatever it is that he wants to see included in healthcare reform, insisting that states that got stimulus money actually get them out so that shovel-ready jobs can be created, and of course we are hearing that he is looking for a political compromise within his own administration for a new policy in Afghanistan--as if deciding how many young troops to send to the inferno called Afghanistan is equivalent to cutting a deal with Congress over a piece of legislation.

Ironically, the best way to assure that he will in fact turn out to be a one-term president is to continue down the road that every day appears to reveal him to be just like all the other politicians he criticized--pragmatic and political to the point of not standing for anything or willing to take any risks for fear of alienating members of his constituency. He appear to fail thus far to understand that we are living in a time of great frustration and much rage that sees all who are a part of any government to be equally guilty until proven innocent.

Obama would do well to heed this rising tide of alienation, including taking note of even Sarah Palin's popularity. The issue in this regard is not how viable she might be as a presidential candidate but what she represents--disaffiliation and anger born of despair.

Someone at one of the recent tea-bagger rallies howled, "I want my America back!" It wasn't articulate or pretty, but it did sum up much of the mood that has taken hold of an increasing number of us--right, left, center, affluent, poor, educated, illiterate, fundamentalist, atheist. It may be the one thing that unites us. This national sense that things are not right, that our best days are slipping away.

So, Mr. President, get ahead of this wave or you will be swept away by it. By Palin or whomever. In this context bad politics may just be good politics. And your bad politics is actually good for the country. Just what we need to begin to restore us.

Monday, November 16, 2009

November 16, 2009--Get Your Bucks On Route 66

If nothing else, recent history has taught us that clever people have figured out how to make money from almost everything.

One of my favorite schemes is for corporations to take out life insurance policies on their employees naming themselves as the beneficiaries. When the worker dies, the company collects the insurance. Of course they fail to tell their employees about this otherwise they might suspect that when working conditions seem dangerous or might contribute to ill health, that it is intentional.

Or am I being too cynical?

All right then, how about banks taking the mortgages on our houses and, rather than holding them for the 30 years it will take us to pay them off, gathering them into bundles called derivatives and then slicing them into thousands of pieces which they in turn sell off as if they were stocks or commodities?

No, you say, the friendly neighborhood bank would never do such a thing to its loyal customers. Turning mortgages into financial instruments. Inconceivable. And even if the banks were inclined to be that greedy, playing with our life savings and financial futures in this tawdry way, our government-of-the-people would step in and through various regulations never allow such a thing to happen.

OK, I’m overstating things to make a point.

How about, then, something much more complicated to commodify? Take Route 66 for example. It’s easy to pick on corporations and businesses that after all are in business primarily to make money. But that legendary highway that opened in 1926 and stretched through hundreds of small towns as it wended its way between Chicago and Los Angeles?

Well, according to the linked article in the New York Times, though most of it has become a ghost road replaced by the interstate highway system—the soulless I-20s and I-40s of the world—portions of it still survive. It even has organizations such as the World Monument Fund trying to preserve its last remnants, and folks out in Santa Monica, where it didn’t end, are trying to make a quick buck off its legendary status by claiming that it did terminate there at its famous pier.

It actually ran out of gas at the untouristy Seventh Street in downtown LA, but legend has it there was an end-of-the-road sign in Santa Monica. Not at the pier but in town at Santa Monica Boulevard and Ocean Avenue. But it appears that that sign was more likely a prop for a road movie being shot there than any actual extension of the nation’s Main Street, as it was frequently called.

But, with that sign in mind, to justify designating a new end of the trail, Chamber of Commerce folks unveiled a sign a week or so ago proclaiming a new “official” terminus. This one conveniently closer to the pier and its trinket shops and fast food joints.

If only the Okies had known about this. Fleeing the drought that had turned their Oklahoma farms into a giant dust bowl, they could have pushed on further and before seeking work on the farms and in the factories of California, they could have checked out Santa Monica and snacked on Cokes and chili dogs.

James Conkle, chairman of the Route 66 Preservation Foundation, summed things up. About the newest extension of the road, he rationalized, “It’s a myth but a myth added to all the other myths of Route 66.”

So now we also have to add some new lyrics to Nat King Cole’s hit song about getting your kicks on Route 66:

It winds from Chicago to LA,
More than two thousand miles all the way.
Get your kicks on Route Sixty-Six.

Now you go through Saint Looey
Joplin, Missouri,
And Oklahoma City is mighty pretty.
You see Amarillo,
Gallup, New Mexico,
Flagstaff, Arizona.
Don't forget Winona,
Kingman, Barstow, San Bernandino.

And Taco Bell is swell
Pizza Hut as well

Here on the Pier
In Santa Monica USA!

Friday, November 13, 2009

November 13, 2009--Day Off

Because I have to tend to a stack of accumulated chores, I need to suspend blogging until Monday.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

November 12, 2009--The Mona Lisa & Le Big Tasty

At least a few things are getting better. For example, the food at the Louvre.

To tell you the truth, after a morning of wandering through the galleries and spending transporting time gazing at the Winged Victory and the Venus de Milo and then Vermeer’s Lacemaker, Rembrandt’s Supper at Emmaus, and of course Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, I have never been that happy with the food served at the various eating places in the Museo. Fancy stuff such as a haricot verts salade at the trendy Café Marly. Reportedly a Karl Lagerfeld favorite.

Not that I have anything against escargots or paté or croque monsieurs, but I prefer them in a café along Boulevard St Germain, not in the basement of the Louvre.

I am thus happy to refer you to the attached article from the New York Times that reports about plans to open a McDonald’s in the Carrousel du Louvre, in the food and shopping court under the steel and glass entrance of architect’s I.M. Pei’s incongruous Pyramide du Louvre.

After museuming and then shopping in Le Carrousel at Lalique, Esprit, Sephora, or the Virgin Megastore, neighboring shops of the forthcoming McDo, and, how could I forget, checking up on your rental car reservation at the convenient Hertz counter, also conveniently located there, you will be able to plop your weary body into an iconic mac-DOUGH orange plastic chair and order up some of those delicious fries to accompany your Big Mac.

Or if you prefer your beef patty Gallic style, you will be able to have it with whole-grain mustard sauce rather U.S. of A. style, drowning in a mix of ketchup and mayo. It does, though, come with the essential shredded lettuce, pickles, and onions. Unless you ask them to hold them.

Le Big Tasty, as it is called, is among the most popular of McDo’s offerings. And they are widely available in France as there are now 1,140 McDonald’s across La Belle France. Yes, 1,140. Micky D’s there is second only to McDonald’s in America when it comes to profitability. No wonder hardly anyone is protesting this latest American incursion. The subheadline of the Times story says it all--“A Move to the Louvre Draws Little Notice.”

I remember a time not too long ago when Le Drugstore opened on the Champs Élysées amid howls of protest. Not only was this viewed widely as encroachment by a barbarian culture, but also further evidence that the French language was being, forgive the word, bastardized. Pretty soon, many moaned, young Frenchmen will be speaking Franglais—a hideous mix of French and English. Hearing Je vais driver downtown pour le weekend drove traditionalists crazy.

But that sort of chauvinistic outrage lives on now only in the stuffy minds of the most conservative. The rest appear quite happy with their goût de l’Amérique—with their taste of America.

In fact, the McDonald’s invasion has also, no surprise, provided food for thought for French intellectuals. For example, Alain Drouard, a historian who is president of the International Commission into European Food History (a job I would kill to have) is quoted as saying, “Gastronomy is a discourse; it is about collective belief.”

And all along I thought food was about eating.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

November 11, 2009--Perchance to Dither

He is being accused of taking too much time to determine the direction of U.S. policy in Afghanistan. Even to his harshest critics of dithering.

There is the feeling that this is harming troop morale—if the commander in chief doesn’t know which commands to come up with, what can be expected of troops on the ground.

Most of what has been discussed in the media has to do with troop levels—the general in charge, Stanley McChrystal, has openly called for at least 60,000 more; Vice President Biden, it appears, would begin to reduce the numbers there, contending that any conventional notion of “winning,” considering Afghanistan’s long history of resisting and defeating foreign invaders (and we are viewed more and more that way by Afghans) is doomed to fail. Just ask the Russians and the Brits before them and of course Alexander the Great.

Splitting the difference, most of the senior people on President Obama’s National Security Team, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mike Mullen, and his most hawkish team member, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, appear to be calling for about 30,000. My sense is that Obama is a split-the-difference kind of president and will probably go along with this though, he for certain knows, this is exactly how we got mired and then defeated in Vietnam.

So I say keep dithering, Mr. President, especially this Veterans Day and after your recent visits to Dover Air Force Base to spend time with the 18 families whose loved ones were being brought home in coffins from Afghanistan, and your subsequent visit to Walter Reed Hospital, and just yesterday to Fort Hood. You need to imbue yourself in the inevitable consequences of this most fateful decision.

And you need to read every word of the attached article from the New York Times about the daunting challenges some of the best of our young people face every day in that inhospitable place.

For openers, the McChrystal strategy calls for an expanded effort to train an indigenous Afghan national police force and army so that they can take over responsibility for protecting their own people and holding off the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Besides “Where have we heard this before?” let’s take a look at our and our allies’ record of success in Afghanistan since that has been at the heart of our mission for more than eight years. One thing Obama called for consistently throughout the presidential campaign was for us to look at the record of progress in any situation and then do more of what has demonstrably worked. Good advice.

In regard to increasing the size of the Afghan army as quickly as possible, in September McChrystal called for it to be expanded in one year from its current level of 90,000 to 134,000 and eventually to 240,000. And he would expand the police force to 160,000. This, he said at the time, would require 10,000 to 15,000 additional trainers from the U.S.—trainers, incidentally that we do not currently have.

One thing McChrystal has not emphasized is that one out of every four or five men in the security forces quits each year and it thus takes tens of thousands of new recruits just to maintain current levels. He also seems reluctant to point out that the number of Afghan battalions capable of fighting independently—our strategic goal—actually declined this year.

Further, an internal Pentagon report grimly concluded that even after these eight years of effort, “The most significant challenge to rapidly expanding the Afghan National Security Forces is a lack of professional leadership at all levels and the inability to generate it rapidly.”

There is more to make one pessimistic of more-or-the-same, but allow a few final comments—

Afghanistan is not the kind of country that we see in the West. In fact, it is a country in many ways in name only. It is a place where in the 19th century the British and Russians in what was blithely called The Great Game draw artificial borders that totally ignored the local cultures and history, a border that circumscribed an amalgam of tribal regions. So any notion of a National Security Force as we know it is inappropriate and doomed to fail in a “country” made up of independent and frequently contesting tribes.

And our approach there thus far has failed to respect and adapt to the way Afghans actually lead their lives. We relate better to the educated urban elites—corrupt though their leaders may be—but have consistently failed when it comes to working with the rural Afghans who, as in America, are more inclined to consider a dangerous career in the military—they like our lower-income youth have fewer options.

To make this vivid, note the self-induced frustrations our troops have experienced when attempting to build barracks to house the hoped-for expanded National Security Forces. This should be a relatively simple matter—we are not, after all, trying to build luxury quarters. But we have been stymied in this effort because of ignored cultural realities.

We are not getting the job done because of a shortage of materials or lack of local labor. We manage to get the barracks built, but they are quickly rendered uninhabitable because the recruits tear the bathroom sinks off the walls so they can wash their feet in them which is required before praying. And then they tend to burn the places down because they ignore the spanking new kitchens and furnaces we’ve provided and build open fires on the floors of the barrack for heating and cooking.

My recommendation—

In addition to visits to Dover and Walter Reed and Fort Hood, Mr. President, make one to Afghanistan. You will already be in Asia next week.

Leave the generals and your entourage behind but take Michelle and spend three days with our troops . . . and theirs. While in country, take a look at the terrain—perhaps the most difficult place on earth to fight any kind of war. On Air Force One on the way home reread David Halberstam’s distressing chronicle of the Vietnam War,The Best And the Brightest. Then convene your National Security Team and emphatically tell them . . . No!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

November 10, 2009--Obama's Katrina?

Among other things that Barack Obama promised during the campaign was that if he were elected, after taking office, he would make sure that the government was competent.

He cited the Bush Administration's disgraceful and incompetent response to the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina. To drive home his point he repeatedly during the campaign visited New Orleans, which was still very much struggling to recover. Five times I think he visited. It was an indisputable indictment and powerful rhetoric, all played out amid images of the sill suffering Lower Firth Ward.

No matter for the moment that it took him more than eight months after being sworn in as president to revisit New Orleans, put aside that he spent a scant four hours there before jetting off to a fundraiser in San Francisco, let's focus here on how competent his administration has thus far been. Let's take a look at how they have been handling the Swine Flu pandemic, something he declared an national medical emergency a few days ago.

We and he and his people have known about the H1N1 threat for at least a year. We and they knew that young children were especially vulnerable. He and they also knew that the potential threat to the literal lives of young people was both a medical and political ticking time bomb. Getting the vaccine made, assuring there were enough doses to inoculate all who were vulnerable, getting the vaccine into the right hands, all of this should have been job one. Especially since the H1N1 vaccine was a fully federal program. It would have been good for our health and good for Obama politically to have demonstrated that they were on top of things and getting the job done.

I say this is the past tense because they have blown it. They have stumblingly contributed to the mess.

Unlike the normal flu vaccination program which is run by the healthcare industry itself without much direct government intervention, Swine Flu, because of the power of its threat, was taken over by the federal government. The government did and does all the ordering of the vaccines, buys it with taxpayer money from the manufacturers, and then distributes it free of charge to hospitals, clinics, doctors, and large employers who then inoculate their patients and employees. Since they receive the vaccine for free, they are allowed only to charge for its administration. Thus, there can be few better cases to demonstrate the effectiveness and competence of our government.

So how is our current government doing? Among other things, from the news reports of the thousands lined up on the streets seeking the hundreds of available shots, not very well at all. And now finally, when a larger stream of supplies is finally becoming available (though it is clear that there will not be enough vaccine to protect everyone at risk during this flu season) because of government bungling employers such as bailed-out Citibank and Goldman Sachs, believe it or not, have been receiving more doses of H1N1 vaccine than either Lenox Hill and Sloan-Kettering Hospitals! If you are skeptical, read the New York Times article about this linked below.

This is sounding like a potential medical Katrina incubating. If, tragically, by mid-winter tens of thousands of kids are dying from the Swine Flu because they had not been adequately inoculated, who will be able to be convinced that "we did everything that was possible to do"? Of least consequence will be the doom of any kind of health care reform that requires the federal government to do anything. And rightly so.

Monday, November 09, 2009

November 9, 2009--The Health Care Tar Baby

In the second of Joel Chandler Harris’ Uncle Remus stories there is the one about the Tar Baby. To entrap Br’er Rabbit in the briar patch, Br’er Fox makes one out of tar and turpentine. The Tar Baby’s special feature is that the more Br’er Rabbit struggles with it the more he is ensnared. And thus “tar baby” in the vernacular now refers to any sticky situation in which the more you struggle to resolve it the more entangled you become.

Sort of like trying to enact a national plan for health care.

First proposed back early in the 20th century by President Teddy Roosevelt and subsequently brought to public and congressional attention and debate by various presidents from both parties—from Harry Truman to Richard Nixon and most recently and disastrously by Bill (and Hillary) Clinton—it is now raging at the center of our political life.

Democrats in the House of Representatives struggled mightily to pass their version, but in spite of having a substantial 40 vote majority had great difficulty rounding up the 218 votes necessary to enact it (they eventually secured 219 plus one Republican)—the Hispanic Caucus, which includes 20 Latino congresspeople, resisted any language that they felt to be too restrictive on illegal imigrants, and progressives fought within the Democratic party about whether or not any federal funds might be used for anything related to abortions.

The Republicans in the House had recently hatched a plan of their own that, believe it or not, according to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office would have wound up costing more than the Democrat plan and would still have left more than 40 million citizens uncovered and excluded anyone from securing insurance who had a preexisting condition.

Since it had no chance whatsoever of passing, which they knew, they used it to fuel tea-party-like rallies in Washington in an effort to, in their felicitous phrase, “kill” the Obama plan. Read their signs and listen carefully to their rhetoric and note that both are laced with violent language and images, including some of bodies piled up at Auschwitz which these deluded folks claim represent what would happen if Obama is able to get Congress to pass any version of reform.

In the Senate, sledding is even tougher. Though the Democrats have a 60-vote majority, the number they need to evoke cloture and cut off a Republican filibuster, they are at least four votes short of being able to get the 60 required to bring a final bill to a definitive vote. There are the Democrat Blue Dogs who are more concerned about their own reelection chances than the nation’s health care system and there is then of course Joe Lieberman, who I only half-facetiously last week suggested would be willing to trade his vote to end debate for a pledge to bomb Iran ASAP.

There is so much tumult about this extraordinarily complex issue that Senate leader Harry Reid was hinting at the end of last week that he could not promise to get to a full debate and vote until some time in early 2010. This would mean it would remain on the agenda just as the midterm election campaign reaches full boil. This is exactly what happened in 1994 when the Clintons’ plan was defeated. (See New York Times story linked below.)

In the event that this happens again—that is, nothing happens—Obama will get the full political blame. And though there will be many who contributed to the defeat of health care reform, Obama in fact will deserve the blame that will descend upon him. It is his tar baby.

Go back to the campaign for the Democratic nomination. During it Obama proposed a relatively modest plan. He was criticized severely by Hillary Clinton because it was not as “universal” as hers. And so over the course of the debates, to play to their progressive base—essential to securing the Democratic nomination—Obama’s plan became more and more inclusive and rose to the top of his domestic agenda, pushing aside education reform and environmental and energy policy. And then after being elected, realizing that to pass an ambitious plan would be daunting, he triangulated toward the political center, calculating that would help get it enacted; but he did not back off from setting it as his highest domestic priority.

With all the special interests circling, with all the profits threatened by any meaningful reform since cost containment is essential to pay for expanded coverage, and with all the cash poring into the political war chests of both parties, to demonstrate that he could do business in a new, bipartisan way and that he could do more than make great speeches but also could get things done, Obama would have been wise to make the case, and there is a legitimate case to be made, that no matter how legitimately important health care reform is, fixing our public schools, cleaning up the environment, and expanding the green economy should be our highest priorities. A version of what he tried to say during the campaign.

And of course if he had realized that it’s jobs, jobs, jobs stupid, and had structured the stimulus program accordingly to focus more exclusively on that, with a few significant legislative victories under his proverbial belt, after the midterm elections in 2010, he could have taken on health care reform and done so more effectively than at present.

Because make no mistake, if the current health care legislative mess spills over into 2010, as I suspect it now will, there will be political hell to pay at the polls next November, and Obama could easily turn out to be a one-term president. Especially if he gets further ensnared in that other tar baby called Afghanistan.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

November 5, 2009--Day Off

I was up all night watching the World Series (I am a happy Yankee fan) and will return tomorrow.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

November 4, 2009--The Ladies of Forest Trace: Now That Would Be Change

The phone woke us. The LED clock on the cable box said 11:45. As usual when there was a call at such a late hour, I assumed it was bad news. From the emergency room in Florida, or worse.

“Answer it,” Rona said in a sleep-husky voice. She sensed my worry and hesitation. “Not answering it will not make the reality—whatever it is—go away.

And so I did. Trembling with concern. It was in fact from Florida; but on the phone was my-very-much-alive, more than 101-year-old mother.

“Have you been watching Anderson?”

Relieved but confused I managed to say, “Are you all right mom?”

“If you mean my health, yes; but if you mean politically, no. A very big no. The girls were right over dinner. CNN just declared what’s-his-name in New Jersey the governor.”

“Christie? It wasn’t looking good for Corzine when I feel asleep. After McDonnell won in Virginia I was so depressed that I shut the TV off.”

“And your mayor, Bloomberger, it looks like he may lose, though I think he’ll squeak through. Not that I like him. Enough with him already. But even it he wins it’s the same kind of news.”

Knowing I would have trouble falling back asleep and with a big day ahead of me on Wednesday, I tried to encourage her to get whatever it was that was on her chest off her chest so I could try to get some rest. “OK, you have my attention, why is it the same kind of news?”

“Remember how we felt almost exactly a year ago today?”

This was the very kind of elliptical conversation I was hoping to avoid and, a bit snappy, said, “You tell me you are having difficulty remembering things from less than 50 years ago, so how can you expect me to remember something like that?”

Rona was gesturing to me not to take that tone with my mother and so I quickly added, “Sorry, mom. You caught at a bad time. We were just getting to sleep. So tell me what . . .”

“It will only take a minute. What I see going on, and this is what they are saying on Anderson,” I realized then that she was referring to Anderson Cooper on CNN, “is that people are so frustrated and angry that there is a powerful anti-government sentiment in the country. And not just among those tea party people. Thus every incumbent, or anyone who feels like an incumbent, is in big trouble.”

“I agree with that,” but couldn’t restrain myself from adding, “And to tell me this you called me at midnight?”

“It’s not midnight yet. Check your clock. Maybe you didn’t turn it back right last weekend.”

Put in my place, I said, “Sorry mom. You’re right it is a big day and I know what you mean about last year. How we were feeling when Barack Obama was elected. How hopeful and inspired we all felt. Or at least most of us.”

“My point exactly because, no matter how they will spin it tonight or tomorrow morning, the big loser last night was the biggest incumbent—Obama himself.”

“I’m not sure I agree with that,” though I had been feeling that during the evening as the results pored in.

“Just take a look at how big the numbers are that the winners got. I forget what they call it on TV.”

“I think you mean the margins, the margins of victory. By how many percentage points the winners won.”

“Yes, them. In New Jersey, in Virginia, and for sure in New York City, the pollsters got it wrong. New Jersey was predicted to be neck-and-neck and he won by what nearly 10 points; in Virginia he was going to win by 10 to 15 points but got 20; and look at what happened to your Bloomberger . . .”

Bloomberg, mom, Michael Bloomberg.”

“Yes, him. He was supposed to win by 15 points and it looks to me that he’ll be lucky to get five.”

“I agree, that’s amazing. How the polling people missed how people would vote.”

“With all respects, that’s not what’s amazing.”

“Go on.”

“It’s not that they miscalculated, it’s that all the incumbents did so poorly. Everyone who was in office or had money or was associated with Wall Street—that would be Corzine and Bloomberg. Or whose party was in power—that would help explain why the Republican won so easily in Virginia with the Democrats having so much power in Washington.”

“But what happened in upstate New York? When I was falling asleep it looked as if the Democrat was winning.”

“I don’t think they counted all the votes yet. It’s very close, but it looks to me as if he will win. That Republican woman’s name remained on the ballot even though she withdrew, and I think enough people are still voting for her that that Democrat, Owens I think his name is, will manage to win.”

“And if he does, and it looks as if he will,” I had turned the TV while speaking with my mother and saw from the still-incomplete results that she was as usual right—the Bill Owens would likely win, “if he wins won’t this contradict your theory—isn’t he an Obama person?”

“Yes and no.”


“They said on TV that Obama carried that district last year and so he may still be popular there. Though like everywhere else, less so. But to me the real story up there is how the Republicans made defeating the incumbent from their own party into a national crusade. That Sarah Palin and the governor from Minnesota who has no neck . . .”


“Him. They went up there, or at least send messages and money to that district, to defeat a member of their own party.”


“And the voters up there rejected this out-of-state interference in their local affairs.”


“And so this is another case of the public not wanting people who they see to be in power telling them what to do. It was a rejection of that.”

“But as we said Obama on that district last year. Doesn’t this maybe mean that he is still popular in upstate New York? Less so of course; but perhaps this was a bit of a referendum on him?”

“I’m sure that’s the way his people will try to interpret it. But as you know, I have my own views.”

By then fully awake and resigned to not getting much sleep, I asked, “And those are?”

“That they should, if they are smart, the Obama people should take this as an early wakeup call, if they haven’t had a few already. A wakeup call about how frustrated and angry people are with anyone in power, anyone in government. Very much now including Obama.”

“I agree with this. He may still be personally popular, but all the polls and other evidence show how people are becoming doubters. Did you see that article in the New York Times two days ago about people who voted for him in Iowa, where he was launched, how they are feeling disenchanted?” (Linked below.)

“I did see that and was not surprised. Most people here at Forest Trace who voted for him are feeling the same way. ‘Where’s the change?’ the ladies are asking. Including tonight at dinner before I came up stairs to watch the results.”

“I’m of course hearing more and more of this in very liberal New York City.”

“Isn’t a year enough, or the ten months he’s been in office, to have evidence that his promises to bring about real change are being realized? Or that we are at least on the right track? I know what you’re about to say—how difficult it is to get anything through Congress, even one controlled by Democrats, maybe because it is controlled by Democrats. That Obama can’t just make a wonderful speech and they will all vote to reform health care or clean up the banks or the environment.”

I indeed was about to say that, but instead added, “This could all change in a few months. Especially if they do pass health care legislation. But I know what you are going to say, that it is not likely to be the kind of real change we need—that the primary winners will be the insurance companies, just like Wall Street was the big winner from his bailout program.”

“Yes, that is exactly what I was about to say. But only part of it.”

“So what’s the rest?” I noticed that it was well past midnight and that Democrat Owens had in fact won up in New York’s 23rd Congressional District.

“All the girls here know that no president these days can get Congress to do what he wants them to do. It doesn’t work that way. We can live with that. No one here is younger than 80 and so we’ve seen a lot to disappoint us. But when it comes to foreign affairs, when it comes to being commander in chief it’s another story.”

“Go on,” though I knew where she was headed with this.

“You remember what Ronald Reagan, who I so disliked, not personally of course, you remember what he did with the airline pilots?”

“I think you mean the air traffic controllers.”

“Yes, them. He had been president for only a few weeks or maybe months and when they went out on strike, as government employees he fired every single one of them. Now do not misunderstand me—I am a strong union person and I hated what he did only to show how tough he was. But he also showed what he stood for. I disagreed with that too, but when he did that it was clear to everyone where he stood on issues. And of course that he was not to be taken lightly. He may have been smiling and charming, I’ll grant him that, but he also showed he was not to be fooled around with.”


“And now Obama is faced with what to do in Afghanistan. By taking so much time to figure things out, and from things he has already said about why we have to be fighting there, he has raised what he is about to decide to such a height that what he eventually announces and does will define his presidency. Maybe even in history. As what Johnson did in Vietnam. And Bush in Iraq. From this I suspect you know where I’m going with this.”

“Yes, I think I do.”

“We know what the generals want. They always want more soldiers to do more fighting. We know this again from Vietnam. And what have presidents always done, or at least most of the time--to look strong they always give them what they want and since Vietnam at least this has proven to almost always be the wrong decision.

“So now we have Obama’s generals—and that’s who they are: his—we have them asking for what 60,000 more troops. Forget for the moment where we’ll get them. But to Obama this should sound like déjà vu again. Shouldn’t it? He knows his history. No one says he doesn’t.”

“He is for sure very smart and well read.”

“Then what will he do? It looks from what I am hearing and reading—though my eyesight isn’t what it used to be—that he is looking for some sort of compromise. Maybe to agree to 20,000. But, and this is my point and then I’ll let you get back to sleep, this is not something to seek a compromise about. With Congress when it comes to something like heath care you have to make deals. I hate it but about something so important that’s the reality. But about sending our beautiful young people to fight and die is totally different.

“I suspect, or at least hope, that he understands this. That it is not a decision about which he should try to make everyone happy, which seems to be his inclination.”

“Again, I ask ‘and’?”

“And he should say no. No more troops. He should stand up to his generals, as Johnson should have, including letting them quit if they want to, and reject their recommendations. In fact, he should say, we’re going to begin to bring soldiers home from there. He should tell us the truth—he can do it and we can handle it—that we cannot win a war of this kind and so we are going to reduce our forces there and fight against terrorists, just terrorists, in different ways. More through the Green Berets and using those robots, or whatever they are.”

“Drones. But they kill so many civilians.”

“What in war, even against just the terrorists, doesn’t? It’s dirty. It is and always was. But you’re distracting me.”

“Sorry. Go on.”

“Think, if he did this, what it would mean. First, we would be doing the right thing. But then wouldn’t it also help fulfill some of the hope that he raised during the campaign? For change. It would show that he isn’t about business as usual. Yes, he would be saying, when it comes to things like health care I have to deal with Congress and lobbyists and big money interests; but when it comes to the way we act in the world, especially when it involves the lives of our young people and the lives of others, I am a different kind of president. One that not only believes in change but also, more important, acts as if I do. Can you imagine what that would mean? How it would make us feel? Even if we are still worried about the economy and our family’s future.”

“I agree, that would be magnificent. And, as you say, it’s the right thing to do. And, also maybe then I would be able to get back to sleep!”

“Pleasant dreams my darling. And remember, I love you more than anything.”

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

November 3, 2009--Folk Singer Eaten By Coyotes

This is not a lurid headline from the National Enquirer but rather a version of one from Sunday’s New York Times. And if a story of this kind can have a kind of good ending, this one does.

Here are the details. (Full article linked below.)

19-year-old Stephanie Luciow, a folk singer from Toronto who performed under the stage name of Taylor Mitchell, was attacked by coyotes while hiking in Canada’s Cape Breton Highlands National Park. She was discovered to be near death and with little hope for her survival was airlifted to a hospital in Halifax where she soon died from her injuries.

A terrible story of a young life ended well before its time with a family left to grieve for the rest of their lives. A sad but not unique tragedy. What is unique, though, is how Stephanie’s family in fact took her untimely and grim demise. And how park rangers did not follow their usual practice of tracking down and destroying the coyotes, which is common after animals have, in the language from events of this kind, “tasted human blood.”

Her parents remarkably reacted not in speechless grief but rather eloquently and transcendentally. They did not seek revenge against the animals nor did they invoke destiny or God or how she is now at peace in a better place. Here is what Stephanie’s mother wrote:

“We take a calculated risk when spending time in nature’s fold — it’s the wildlife’s terrain. When the decision had been made to kill the pack of coyotes, I clearly heard Taylor’s voice say, ‘Please don’t, this is their space.’ She wouldn’t have wanted their demise, especially as a result of her own.”

Park officials had begun to hunt down and kill the coyotes but paused when they read Stephanie’s mother’s words. They continued to study the animals in the area where the attack occurred to see if any were behaving in an unusually aggressive way. And though they did not rule out thinning the coyote population further—the park is one of Canada’s most popular tourist destinations and they want to be certain it is safe--they said that Ms. Mitchell’s wish would likely be honored:

“We really have a lot of sympathy for her perspective. We’re not out here conducting a general cull.”

Monday, November 02, 2009

November 2, 2009--Rosie the Marathoner

They ran the New York City Marathon yesterday. More than 42,000 participated, and that number was as much the story as who won.

Back in 1979, the first year of the marathon, just 127 competed. Perhaps an even larger story than this incredible increase in the numbers is the remarkable fact that well over 90 percent completed the 26.2 mile course that took runners into all five of the city’s boroughs and over some of our most majestic bridges.

As a former jogger who panted through my daily 3-5 mile schlep, that so many made it from Staten Island, across the Verrazano Bridge, and eventually to Central Park in Manhattan is almost impossible to comprehend. So many running and finishing dwarfs the awareness that this is a very competitive race, an athletic event that attracts all the elite marathoners from around the world and that real cash money prizes as well as prestige are very much at stake.

Instead, during the extensive TV coverage, which not only spans the two hours and ten to twenty minutes it takes the male and female winners to arrive at the finish line but also continues for seemingly hours so that we can follow the progress of the oldest and youngest runners, those who have had quadruple heart bypass surgery, and recent mothers whose husbands were tragically killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is as if the race itself, its official outcomes, are only a vehicle to highlight these inspiring stories.

And then there is another side to the race. A side that reveals a great deal about some the cultural shifts that have occurred in our society during the 30 years since the NYC Marathon began.

The marathon, which used to be both a race and a full test of character, has become for an increasing number just something to add to one’s lifetime wish list along with a sky dive, bungee jump, and dinner at Nobu.

Evidence of this, according to the linked article from the New York Times, is the fact that the average time for finishers by the year has been getting slower and slower. And this is true for the other high-visibility marathons from the legendary Boston Marathon to the one in Berlin. In 1980 in New York the average finishing time for men was 3 hours 32 minutes 17 seconds. Last year it 4:16 for men and the times for women had increased from 4:03:39 in 1980 to 4:43:32 in 2008.

In fact, the one in Berlin has seen so many clamoring to participate—actually more and more who walk the course rather than run it—that they have the so-called “slow police” (leave it to the Germans to come up with police of this kind) who lurk at the back of the pack of participants and pluck out those who are on course to finish in more than 6 hours and 15 minutes.

Slow runners, traditionalists claim, are not racing but simply participating and as a result are not showing respect for the daunting distance that characterizes marathons nor what it takes to truly compete. Others say that by people like me seeing so many “ordinary” people out there in their shorts and tights, including many pushing bellies as well as baby carriages, that they are inspired to get in shape and improve their health. What’s so wrong with that?

Hey, they add, it’s not cheating to run a mile and then walk a mile. Though even the physical fitness or self-esteem crowd can’t find the words to justify those who stop along the way for a bagel much less a full lunch in Brooklyn or Queens as an increasing number have been spotted doing.

And, the defenders of wide participation point out, the NYC Marathon from its inception attracted all sorts of characters. It’s New York after all, and even charming cheaters have traditionally been welcomed. Remember Rosie Ruiz, they remind us, the women’s “winner” in 1979—with winner in quotes because she ran for a few miles, then hopped on the subway in Brooklyn, took the R Train to 59th Street and Fifth Avenue, skulked around waiting for the pack to arrive, and then rejoined to race as the lead runners approached the south end of Central Park and the finish line.

It took some time to figure out what she had done and to disqualify her. Not until she did a version of the same thing the following March at the Boston Marathon. She got nailed there and then retrospectively in New York because while other top finishers collapsed at the end of the race at both places Rosie was as fresh as when she had begun and wasn’t even sweating. Nor had she stopped for a slice of pizza.