Monday, December 31, 2007

December 31, 2007

     They start counting real votes on Thursday.  The Iowa caucuses are then, on Tuesday the 8th, the New Hampshire primary.  After those two, we'll know something.  Not who the nominees are, maybe, but we'll know of lot of people who won't be. 
     In 1984, for instance, Walter Mondale and Gary Hart finished first and second in Iowa and went on the battle through the primaries for a nomination Mondale finally won.  But others, including John Glenn, vanished after Iowa   His headquarters, I remember, was in the same building as the Red Cross  but even they couldn't save his candidacy.
    So after Iowa it'll be a smaller field, maybe two in each party.  Republicans?  The polls say Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee.  Former New York mayor Rudolf Giuliani has pretty much stayed out of the early states--Iowa, New Hampshire, Michigan, South Carolina--planning to do well in Florida, but the party may be over by then.
     Democrats?  The polls, again, say Iowans are fairly evenly split among three candidates:  Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and Barack Obama. Edwards' campaign seems to have come lately to a single word:  fight.  He says it two or three times in every sentence, almost as if he were running for cheerleader or maybe boxing coach.  Do Iowans like fighters?  We'll find out.  Again, my guess would be that two of those three survive to trudge on in New Hampshire.  Iowa doesn't always pick winners;  it does winnow the field.
     So the stage is set and Washington, the political center of the country, is of course glued to its screens watching the unfolding battle?  Well, no.  Not exactly.   Washington is glued to it's newspapers and TVs not because of politics but because the Redskins--the football team--have improbably won four straight and made the NFL playoffs. 
     Some cities are just good sports towns.  I grew up in one, Chicago, where the baseball and basketball and all the other teams had lots of serious fans. Washington's different.  Nobody gets all that worked up aout the Capitols (hockey), the Wizards (hoops) or the Nationals (baseball). But when the Redskins do well, the place rocks. 
    So if you run into a Washington friend Thursday night and ask, meaning Iowa, "Who won?" the answer will probably be, "The game's not 'til Sunday, stupid."  It's a funny town.    

Sunday, December 30, 2007

December 29, 2007

     At the end of a year, this columnist likes to look back at some of those we lost during the year.  There's never enough room to list all the valuable dead, but here are some we mourned in 2007.
     First, Benazir Bhutto, a charismatic, controversial leader who came back to the Pakistan she'd fled to try and turn it from terror to democracy.  She was murdered;  her country's future remains in doubt.  We lost Boris Yeltsin, who was criticized for many things but who will be remembered for standing on a tank, putting down a coup and announcing the birth of post-Soviet Russia, a truly memorable achievement.
      We lost Jack Valenti, a powerful White House aide to President Lyndon Johnson, and we lost Johnson's wife Lady Bird, who was powerful but also full of light and grace.  We lost Tom Eagleton, a senator who was briefly George McGovern's running-mate in 1972, forced off the ticket after it was learned he'd had electric shock treatments for depression.  And E. Howard Hunt, a spy, who was part of the Watergate scandal.
     We lost Luciano Pavarotti, a gifted tenor, and Max Roach, a wonderful jazz drummer, who started back when bop was king and played for years.  Sports lost two gifted Yankees--Hank Bauer, who hit home runs without taking pills, and Phil Rizzuto, a legend at shortstop and then a Yankee broadcaster for many years.  He called people "huckleberries."  I've never been sure why.
     We lost novelist Norman Mailer whose first book, "The Naked and the Dead," was probably his biggest hit.  Journalism lost some of its finest:  Art Buchwald, whose columns made us laugh for thirty years or so;  Molly Ivins, a wonderful Texan writer with a gift of humor (she was the one who dubbed this president "Shrub");  and David Halberstam, one of our best and brightest, among the first to see the Vietnam War for the tragic waste it was.
     Lost Ingmar Bergman, who proved that movies could make you think as well as laugh and cry.  Lost Marcel Marceau, a mime like no other I have ever seen.  Lost televangelist Jerry Falwell and astronaut Wally Schirra.
     And finally, we lost Paul Tibbets, a U.S. Army Air Corps pilot during World War Two, who on August 6th, 1945, dropped the first atomic bomb ever used in war on the Japanese city of Hiroshima and thereby changed warfare and the world forever. 

December 28, 2007

     How sick of it are we?  In poll after poll after poll, voters give this president and this Democratic-controlled Congress very low marks.  You can understand why.  An unpopular, many would say unnecessary war in Iraq.  Little if any progress on pressing domestic concerns like health care and education.
     It's understandable.  The Congress is Democratic, but not very.  It takes sixty votes in the Senate to break a threatened filibuster, which means to do just about anything.  The Democrats don't have sixty votes, not even close to it.  So inaction, continuing resolutions (let's just keep spending what we're spending now on this program) and huge appropriations bills no one has read become the order of the day.  And of course it's frustrating.  But the question, with the Iowa caucuses just days away, is what does it mean for the presidential race?
     Bill Clinton, as president, used a technique called "triangulation" - find a point between two opposing views, in other words, and hit a compromise which can get enough votes to pass.  It worked sometimes.  Lots of people criticized his welfare reform bill, but most would probably now concede that it's better than what it replaced.  It didn't work other times.  Health care again.
     Would Senator Clinton as president use that same technique?  We don't know.  Barack Obama says he would not:  "We have to change politics. The same old games won't do;  triangulating and trimming won't do."  That's clearly meant as a jab at Clinton.
     And that--how much change we really want--is what this election may come down to.  Obama quotes Martin Luther King on "the urgency of now."  He asks voters, David Broder writes in the Washington Post, "Are you fired up? Are you ready to go?" 
     And then he delivers his last five words:  "Let's go change the world."  Broder says it's electric;  I haven't heard it.  But I do think it may be what decides this election.  If voters are really angry, really sick of Washington, Obama.  If they're just sort of angry, Clinton.  

Thursday, December 20, 2007

December 19, 2007

     The Olympic Committee stripped Marion Jones of the five medals she won at the 2000 Olympic Games, stripped sprinter Ben Johnson of the one he won in 1988 because they'd been using illegal drugs.  Now it's baseball's turn
     The Olympians lost their medals, their places in the record books.  But can baseball do that?  The closest parallel may be the 1919 Chicago White Sox.  Eight members of that team were charged with throwing the Series to the Cincinnati Reds.  They were acquitted in court--the confessions of two, Eddie Cicotte and "Shoeless" Joe Jackson went missing.  But they were banned from baseball for life.  Legend tells of a little kid saying to Jackson, "Say it ain't so, Joe."   Jackson,  who had the highest batting average of any player on either team during the series, later recanted his confession .   I've always wondered about him, but the ban stood.
     What's baseball to do now?  You could erase Barry Bonds' home run record from the books, of course.  But George Mitchell's report names many players.  Mitchell was an honest and conscientious senator when I knew him and there's no reason to think his character has changed.  Some of the players named in his report have admitted it;  some--Roger Clemens, notably--have denied it.  But so many are named baseball would simple have to pretend the past few seasons never happened if it tried to erase all the incidents.  And nobody, in any case, has reported a little kid saying, "Say it ain't so, Barry."  Not likely, somehow.
     A couple of things are obvious:  when ballplayers make millions of dollars a year, and a trainer of a friend says, "Hey, swallow these and you'll play even better and swallow even more," some players, some of any of us, will say, "Okay. Gimme 'em."  So part of the solution--or at least part of addressing the problem to see if it can be solved--is much more stringent drug testing.   Every game?  I don't know, but whatever would be very, very tough.
     But the larger question is, do we want more and more records set by oddly shaped men?  Or do we want a game we can enjoy and normal people can play.  Ted Williams, the last major leaguer to hit over .400 for a season, looked, trust me, like a normal guy.  Baseball isn't the national pastime anymore.  Maybe football is, or NASCAR.  But it's a swell game and let's hope it gets back to being a swell game that normal people play.  If that's what we want, we should let the game know it.       

Monday, December 17, 2007

December 17, 2007

Back in 1968, when George Romney was running for president, a gifted political reporter named Jack Germond used to joke that every reporter who covered that campaign had a typewriter (I did say 1968) one key of which, when struck, would print "Romney later explained." If any of those typewriters are still around, we ought to give them to the men and women who are covering his son Mitt this year. Some stuff just runs in the family, I guess.
There was Mitt on Meet the Press Sunday trying to explain what he meant when he said, "Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom." In plain English, of course, it means you can't be free unless you're religious. But Mitt explained earnestly to Tim Russert several times that that wasn't what he meant at all. Didn't that mean that an atheist wouldn't be qualified for a high position in his administration? Why, of course not, not at all.
And so it went on issue after issue. Russert is good at this, and he always had matched quotes--three years ago you said this, now you say that. And Romney would bob and weave. Of course he was for gun control, well, at least for background checks because they're so much quicker now than they used to be; but of course he was for the right to keep and bear arms, of course he was. And so on and so on, issue after issue. Only on abortion did he acknowledge that his view has changed. He used to think it was a woman's right to make that decision, now he's against abortion, except, of course, that the country isn't with him yet so maybe for now we could just strike down Roe v. Wade and leave abortion up to the states again, though he was against it of course.
Is this presidential? I don't think so. Presidential is sounding like the guy in charge: Harry Truman--"The buck stops here." Or "If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen." This wasn't that.
Still, it's a funny year. There was Mike Huckabee, the newest favorite, asking a New York Times magazine reporter in "an innocent voice, 'Don't Mormons believe that Jesus and the devil are brothers?'" No, governor, they don't. You could google them and learn that in about thirty seconds. But why bother? You may be ahead in Iowa.
I kind of miss the old days when you just said the other candidate was soft on Communism. It didn't mean much of anything, but it showed you were combative and you could get on to the other stuff. This sorting out gods and devils is a whole lot trickier.

Friday, December 14, 2007

December 12, 2007

     Voters think the country is in bad shape.  Only 21% of the voters in the newest CBS News/ New York Times poll approve of the Democratic-led Congress.  Only 28% approve of President Bush - one point above his all time low.  Other polls show voters gloomy over the economy, over the future in general.  The question is, how angry are they about all this?
     In 1968, when Robert Kennedy ran, politics was passionate.  He campaigned in open cars even though his brother had been killed in one.  It took three men, one of them an NFL lineman, to hold him in the car as crowds surged against it to touch him.  He lost cufflinks often.  His hands sometimes bled by the end of the day.  Rock star stuff.
     Kennedy was murdered, of course, just as he won the California primary.  The conventional wisdom back then was that Hubert Humphrey had the votes to win anyway.  But I've always believed that Kennedy's California victory would have started a surge - delegates switching sides, Kennedy nominated, and Richard Nixon, panicked at the thought of losing to another Kennedy, doing just that.  We'll never know, of course.  But this time?
      The candidates all talk about being for change, but it seems a calmer change, change we're used to.  Hillary Clinton, after all, has been a major national figure for sixteen years as First Lady, senator and now White House hopeful.  New?  Not exactly.  Her husband talks often about the challenges and successes of his presidency in the 1990s, and voters like that.  About as many of Mrs. Clinton's backers told that CBS News/ New York Times poll that they back her because of her husband's experience as because of her own.
    Barack Obama promises real change.  He's younger, hasn't been around the track so much.  Just the notion of a black man leading America would change perceptions of this country all over the world.  But the passion that surrounded Kennedy forty years ago doesn't seem quite there this time.  Maybe I'm wrong.
     The Republicans?  Well, Arkansan Mike Huckabee stirs passion among evangelicals.  But he really ought to run for the School Board in Kansas. They voted against teaching evolution in the public school a few years ago, though radical liberals took control in the next election and put Darwin back in the curriculum.
     Maybe it's that a lot of Americans think they're doing okay;  they're just depressed about their country.  That suggests a vote for "change we're comfortable with," which would be good news for Senator Clinton.            

Monday, December 10, 2007

December 10, 2007

     We've never had a co-presidency.  Walter Cronkite talked about the possibility of a Reagan-Ford ticket in 1980 and said it might be one but, of course, that never happened.  Now if Senator Clinton wins the White House we'd have a prez and an ex-prez in residence.  You have to wonder who'd be trying to give orders to whom.
     I'd bet serious money that Hillary never uttered the word "obey" when she married Bill.  But what, as President, would she do with him?   Barack Obama says he'd give Bill Clinton a job because he's capable.  Hillary has said her husband might be some sort of roving ambassador.
     But he's a better instinctive politician than she;  "I feel your pain" is not in her repertoire.  And he's had more experience.  What does she do when he says, "Listen, hon, I know these Russians better than you, I've negotiated with them before.  Take my advice and do such and such."?
     I don't know what she does.  She is one tough women, for sure.  But she has spent years with a husband who was often and notoriously unfaithful to her.  Love?  Ambition?  If it was all ambition--he can get me the one job I really want--she'll probably tell him to shut up and go to his room.  If it's been love or a mixture of the two, she probably listens -  but how hard?  Her father was an old-fashioned, pro-business conservative who paid cash for his house and thought government should stay out of areas like education.  As a grownup, Hillary Clinton went the other way.  Her husband, the president, was pretty much a middle-of-the-roader with an eye on the polls.  Will she follow his path?  Will she be more aggressive in foreign affairs or less?  Good questions all.  
     There's probably nothing really wrong with a co-presidency, if that's what her victory would give us.  But we're used to having one person in charge, the one the voters elected.  That, in 2008, would not be Bill, of course.  And it might be useful if she were pressed to spell out in some detail just what her husband's role would be, how important his advice would be.
     One thing's certain:  unless Bill starts wearing skirts, we'll know who wears the pants in the family.  Both of them.  

Thursday, December 6, 2007

December 5, 2007

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty once said, "it means just what I choose it to mean--neither more nor less." I wonder if he worked at the White House.

Here we have an intelligence report that says no, Iran gave up working on a nuclear bomb in 2003; they're quite certain about it. "See," the President says, "I was right all along." Never mind that he's been telling us they were working on a bomb now. They were working on one, once upon a time, and they could start working on one again, sometime. So Mr. Bush was right about what a big, bad threat they were and are. Should we go ahead and bomb them to stop them from developing a weapon they're not working on? Vice President Cheney, I suspect, would vote yes.

Then we have the Supreme Court this week hearing arguments about the legal status of the prisoners on Guantanamo. The administration once argued that the base was outside American law, but the Court said no to that. The detainees do not have the right of habeas corpus, which is the right to be brought before a court and confronted with the charges against you. The Constitution says it can be suspended in cases of "rebellion or invasion." Abraham Lincoln did that during the Civil War but we don't have either of those just now. Never mind. The detainees don't know the charges against them; the military tribunals which will hear their cases don't have to tell them what evidence there is against them; they don't all have lawyers; and the papers carried a story his week about one detainee who was found innocent several years ago but is still in custody.

You can argue, and the lawyers do, over whether all of this stuff is unconstitutional. But there's no doubt at all that it's un-American. Those kinds of mock trials don't belong in the country I grew up in. The country they remind me of is Joseph Stalin's Soviet Union with its show trials and staged, forced confessions.

I know Mr.Bush went to law school but he must be ignoring what he learned there. His notion seems to be that he'll believe whatever he wants to believe about Iran, about Guantanamo, whatever, and his believing it makes it so.

"Curiouser and curiouser," said Alice.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

December 3, 2007

    The good news is that in just a month something--the Iowa caucuses--will actually happen and we'll have results to talk about, not just guesswork, pundit opining and polls.
     The other good news is that the newest poll in Iowa shows it may be a real race. The Des Moines Register's poll--which pollsters agree is a careful one--shows Barack Obama three points ahead of Hillary Clinton and five ahead of former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards.  The margin of error is plus or minus 4.4%, so the poll doesn't tell you who's in front--that's all within the margin of error--but it does tell you there's a real fight going on.
     Same on the Republican side. Arkansan Mike Huckabee leads Mitt Romney, 29--24% with New York's Rudolph Giuliani third at 13%.   Again, Huckabee and Romney are within the margin of error, but clearly it's a competitive race and Huckabee, a Baptist minister, has some weapons in a state where Christian conservatives are an important part of the GOP.
     It's good, for those of us who want an exciting race, to see that the national frontrunners, Clinton and Giuliani, seem to have a Iowa fight on their hands.  They seem to think so too.  Clinton has stepped up her attacks on Obama concentrating, oddly enough, on his health care proposal.  Oddly because the one actual governmental chore Sen. Clinton was in charge of during her husband's presidency was the health care plan he proposed early in his first term.  It was, of course, a complete and total flop.  I remember one Republican senator--was it Domenici, I'm not sure--who used to love to haul out on the Senate floor a diagram of what he said was the Clinton health proposal.  It had more boxes than Yankee stadium connected by a mass of lines that Albert Einstein would have had trouble figuring out.  The Republicans loved it and it worked.
     And going negative may not help Clinton;  Iowa voters are less fond of that stuff than voters in some other states.
     No matter.  A month from today we'll have winners and losers.  I can't wait.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

November 29, 2007

     They've started fighting.  I didn't watch all of Wednesday night's CNN debate among the Republican presidential candidates, but the parts I saw had, for a change, some genuine arguing.  Rudolph Giuliani and Mitt Romney, for instance, scuffling over who was tougher on illegal aliens.  Giuliani chiding Romney for having illegals work at his house;  Romney saying, reasonably, that if you hire a contractor to do work, you're probably not going to check his employees' papers.  Or Romney talking about illegals in the public schools in New York, and Giuliani asking, reasonably, should we have put 70,000 kids out on the streets in the middle of a crime wave?  Some in the crowd booed Giuliani during this exchange, but I think it was more for his calling Romney "holier than thou" than for anything he said on the actual issue.
     Then there was gun control, with the questioner firing his rifle and getting a lecture on gun safety from, I think it was, Fred Thompson, who's pro-gun, of course.
     But torture was the best.  Romney, in effect, imploded.  He was against torture, he explained, but it would be wrong for him as a presidential candidate to say whether waterboarding was torture and whether, as president, he'd authorize its use.  Huh?  Surely presidential candidates ought to be willing and able, if they're against torture, to say what it is.  John McCain, who was tortured while a prisoner in North Vietnam, owned this issue.  He said waterboarding was against the Geneva Convention and against existing U.S. law.  The consensus, anyway, seems to be that torture doesn't work very well.  McCain himself, tortured to reveal the names of the other pilots in his squadron (and how that would have helped the North Vietnamese anyway is a good question) named instead the members of the Green Bay Packers offensive line that year which, as a fan, he happened to know.  No one in Hanoi, presumably, was any the wiser.  Romney repeated that he was against torture but wouldn't define what it was.  Didn't sound very presidential, somehow.  But he has a nice smile.
    Anyway, they're finally really arguing.   And the best news of all--actual vote counting is just over a month away.  Can't wait.


Wednesday, November 28, 2007

November 27, 2007

The Second Amendment to the Constitution is very simple: "A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed." Very simple, except that it isn't, of course.

The argument through the years has been over the relationship between the militia clause and the "right of the people" clause. A scholar named Tench Coxe wrote in 1788 while the states were considering ratification of the Constitution, "the people are confirmed by the...article in their right to keep and bear their private arms." So we know where he stood. Alexander Hamilton: "Little more can reasonably be aimed at with respect to the people at large than to have them properly armed and equipped," though he also wanted them to prove this by being assembled once or twice a year--like a militia. But he also wrote that if the government usurps power, "the citizens must rush tumultuously to arms, without concert, without system," which doesn't sound much like a militia.

The Supreme court wrote in 1876 that the second amendment indicated the right to bear arms "shall not be infringed, but this...means no more than that it shall not be infringed by Congress." So the states could presumably do whatever they wanted. But the Court wrote is 1939 (U.S. v. Miller), "In the absence of evidence tending to show that... a shotgun having a barrel of less than 18 inches in length...has some reasonable relationship to the preservation or efficiency of a well-regulated militia, it cannot be said the Second Amendment....guarantees the right to keep and bear such an instrument...." So, gun control. But sensible scholars like Justice Hugo said later that the amendment's "prohibition is absolute."

Are you confused yet?

And now another Supreme Court, this one, is going to take another look at the amendment.

It's a terrific case--you can argue what the men who wrote the Constitution meant, back when militia men probably did show up toting their own weapons. You can argue about what a militia is today, about what the Founders would have made of our society (now there's a reverie), and about all sorts of related issues.

I have no idea how they'll rule, but there is one sure bet--we'll still be arguing the issue even after the rulng has come down.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Taking a nap

Ann Hawthorne, who edits this column, is out of the country for a couple of weeks.The column will take a nap until she returns.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

November 13, 2007

     New York Times columnist David Brooks quotes a political consultant as saying, "You know, there's really only one great man running for president this year, and that's McCain."  He's right.
     It isn't just the biography, though that's impressive:  combat pilot, shot down, imprisoned and tortured by the North Vietnamese (he still is awkward signing autographs because of injuries suffered then);  it's just who he is.  I realized how different he is when he was running in 2000 and I interviewed him for the CNN profile that was to air on the day he announced.
     We went through the war and the torture.  And then I said something like--Senator, a lot of us reporters admire and respect you, but there's one question I have to ask that you won't like--what about that tasteless one-liner of yours about Chelsea Clinton at a Republican dinner the other day?   And no, I won't repeat it here but it was truly ugly.  McCain looked me straight in the eye and said, "I suppose we've all done stupid and cruel things in our lives.  I hope that's my last one."  Well, have you ever heard a presidential candidate say something like that?  I hadn't.  Still haven't.
    And we reporters liked him because he, like we, took our job seriously and answered our questions.  On his bus, the Straight Talk Express, he answered so many questions I was sometimes tempted to ask, "Senator, could we maybe have the Straight Silence Express for fifteen minutes?  I have to figure out what my lead is."  He'd have said no, of course.  He answered questions.
     He was a rebel at the Naval Academy and part of him, I think, is one still.  I've always thought that if he and Bill Bradley had been the nominees in 2000, we'd have had an unusual election--two honest, decent, thoughtful men arguing issues.  Wouldn't that have been something rare and swell?
     He's less glamorous this time and less popular with the press.  He supported the war in Iraq when most of us didn't.  But it was what he believed and he said so, of course.
     Should he be president this time?  I don't know.  He's older;  he'd be, at seventy-one, the oldest president we ever inaugurated if he won.  I'm in my seventies, and I wouldn't feel up to the job.  But a fine man?  Oh yes, indeed. 

Monday, November 12, 2007

November 12, 2007

News reports this Veterans' Day week remind us that this year has been the costliest so far in our two wars, Iraq and Afghanistan. But these wars don't touch us the way, say, Vietnam or Korea did. I think the reason is that we don't have a draft. The armed services are all-volunteer.

Back during those earlier wars, you or your kids might get drafted and sent to fight, and we know that can't happen now. People think Iraq was a dumb idea or they don't, but there's not a lot of passion either way. And that may be part of a larger phenomenon--what New York Times columnist David Brooks recently called "the happiness gap."

All sorts of polls and surveys show that Americans are pretty satisfied with their own lives, but really mad at their government. 76% of Americans told a Pew Research Center survey they were satisfied with their family income; 65%, satisfied overall with their lives. But only 25% told Pew they were satisfied with the country. All the polls give President Bush really low marks. And all the polls give Congress really low marks. It's race between the two.

It's easy to see why. The president seems stuck in his war in Iraq, certainly in no hurry to end it, and thinking about maybe starting another one with Iran. That would be three for one president - a record. And Congress? What has it done about Iraq? The answer is, essentially, nothing. Has it passed any of the thirteen appropriations bills this year? No.

That's mostly because Congress keeps trying to figure out ways to stuff earmarks into bills the President won't veto. You know, "If we put all the new post offices and statues of us in the defense bill, he'll have to sign that, won't he?" That kind of thing.

All this would seem to call for presidential candidates demanding big, radical changes. Barack Obama and John Edwards do call for change, but there's little of the fire that marked, say, Robert Kennedy or Jesse Jackson's campaigns in years past. But again, maybe that's because the voters aren't as angry now as they were back then. Their own lives, they say, are going along pretty well.

It's a funny year.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

November 7, 2007

     Well, the frontrunners may be getting farther in front.  Former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani gets endorsed by Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson?  Oh wow!  How often does a bigtime televangelist endorse someone who's for gay rights and abortion rights?  I don't know, but it doesn't happen every week.
     The other startling, recent GOP development came when Carl Cameron, chief political correspondent at Fox News, was trying to hurry his studio along so he could start his interview with former Senator Fred Thompson. "The next president has a schedule to keep," Cameron reminded the studio.  And Thompson piped up, "And so do I."  Well, was that a concession, or what?
     And Hillary Clinton?  I had started to worry that she was getting the frontrunner syndrome where your advisors keep telling you, "You're ahead, now just don't make a mistake!"  The result is you retreat into caution and vagueness--no specifics,  no controversial stands on tough issues.  I can remember Ed Muskie, the Maine senator who was the Democratic frontrunner in 1972, putting aside undelivered, perfectly sensible speeches his writers had given him and saying things like how much he wanted to help his neighbor or, "Let me live in a house by the side of the road/ And be a friend to man." That undistinguished line from a 19th century poet, Sam Walter Foss, didn't, somehow, seem to have much to do with running for president.  And there was Clinton in a recent debate coming out for and against driver's licenses for illegal aliens.        
     But a senior Clinton aide insisted the other day that frontrunner syndrome won't happen, that Clinton has real positions on the issues.  Well, she may be a bit inconclusive about Iraq, but so are they all, just about.  It is tempting to waffle when you're in front, but Clinton is a very disciplined candidate, I think, and she may resist that.
     The only really unpredictable factor is, of course, the voters themselves.  Unlike most voters, those in Iowa and New Hampshire have already thought a lot about this election. They know they come first and they take that role seriously.  Four years ago Vermont Governor Howard Dean was the favorite early on.  But he finished third in Iowa, second in New Hampshire, and gave up his bid shortly thereafter.
     One role that doesn't change:  it ain't over 'til they count the votes.  

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

November 6, 2007

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is twenty-five years old this week. That's hard to imagine. The war itself ended in 1975. The Memorial opened seven years later and thousands of people came to the ceremony. I remember walking among the crowd with CBS cameraman Mike Marriott, looking for the perfect face to show at the moment of the dedication. He found it--a young man with shoulder length hair, in fatigues, with tears streaming down his face. The story I wrote that day began, "This was a day when it was absolutely okay for grown men to cry." After it aired Mike, who like me had covered the war, went home and cried. So did I.

The Memorial wasn't popular with everyone at first. Not heroic enough, some said, just a black wall with all those names--58,256 service members who died in the war. People will be reading those names out loud at The Wall this anniversary week, reading them on Wednesday and on Thursday and on Friday and on Saturday. So many names. A generation of Americans have visited, wept, made rubbings of the names they knew, left mementos of the ones they lost--a locket, an old snapshot, maybe a ring.

The Memorial isn't controversial anymore. And the war? I don't know. The country was bitterly divided back then--hawks and doves yelling at each other in the street, returning soldiers sometimes jeered. We've learned better than that now; no one blames the warriors for the mess in Iraq.

Vietnam was supposed to be about containing Communism. According to the domino theory, which the hawks believed, if Vietnam went Communist so would the other countries in the region--Thailand, Malaysia and so on. Vietnam did go Communist, of course. None of the other countries followed. And we have diplomatic relations with Vietnam now. While they still talk Marxism, the last time I was there they were hotly pursuing joint ventures - projects with some capitalist country or company. And the Cold War ended because the Soviet Union imploded, one more proof that Marxism is terrible economics.

Did we learn anything? Maybe, but looking at Iraq, maybe not. The Memorial isn't for that anyway. The Wall, Maya Lin who designed it wrote, is "for those who have died, and for us to remember them." I go once a year or so. It works.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

October 30, 2007

Jealousy is bad. Envy is bad. I know that. But I'm jealous and envious and cranky. The Red Sox won the World Series. Four straight, in fact. And it's the second time in four years.

Nothing wrong with their winning, of course. But I'm a Cubs fan and we used to have the Red Sox as companions in misery. When they won the World Series in 2004, it was their first championship in 86 years. We Cubs fans know about numbers like that. Our guys, swept out of the playoffs in three games this year, last won the Series in 1908. For the Red Sox to win two in four years seems, somehow, almost greedy.

And they may be back in 2008. They lost big stars from that 2004 team--Johnny Damon, Derek Love, Pedro Martinez--and won this year anyway. They have only one big star at risk this year--Mike Lowell, who was named the most valuable player in the Series. He had the best regular season of his career, and he's said he'd like to stay in Boston.

And the Red Sox' usual rivals, the Yankees, seem to be unraveling. Their biggest star, Alex Rodriguez, the youngest man ever to hit 500 home runs, has opted to become a free agent. The Yankees say they won't try to lure him back. The team could also lose closer Mariano Rivera, catcher Jorge Posada and pitcher Andy Pettitte to free agency or retirement, which would put them in the rebuilding business and probably out of contention for a season or two.

And the Cubbies? They went home early, as noted. No playoff heroics, lost three straight. Will they be any better next year? It's hard to know, but you probably wouldn't bet the rent money on a team that's gone a century without a championship. If losing can get to be a habit - and it can - the Cubbies' future in far from bright.

So, way to go, Red Sox! Good on you! I can't stand it.

Monday, October 29, 2007

October 29, 2007

You've probably heard by now about the fake news conference the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA, as we affectionately call it) held last week during the California fires. Pretty clever--they gave only reporters fifteen minutes notice, so they couldn't get there and had to listen by phone, on lines where they could only listen, not ask questions. FEMA staffers asked the questions, which was, of course, just dandy for the FEMA boss who was answering them. No ugly surprises here.

Apologies afterward, of course. The FEMA question answerer confessed an "error of judgement." White House press secretary Dina Perino said it wouldn't happen again and was a tactic the White house would never employ.

But I don't know. Washington isn't, even on its best days, a pure search for truth; it's a battle between reporters and spokespeople who want to spin whatever the story is their way. The government, the individual politicians, Congressmen and others in the government want to tell you only the stuff that helps them sell their program or defend their vote. Truth? That's somebody else's gig.

So instead of scolding FEMA, maybe the feds should take this useful experiment and expand it. I mean, can't you just see W there behind the podium or out in the Rose Garden, taking questions from Ms.Perino and a few of her colleagues? Makes sticking to your message--something politicians usually want to do--a whole lot easier. I'll bet they'd love it at State and at the Pentagon too. Cancel those press passes! Make those clowns listen on the phone instead! Way to go, bureaucracy!

And if it works at press conferences, maybe it would have other uses. I mean, what if we taxpayers could be our own IRS, our own auditors, pay as much tax as we think we ought to pay. Could the government adapt to that? Would enough money come in for there to be a government? Don't know, but it might be fun finding out.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

October 24, 2007

The Congressional Budget Office estimates that Mr. Bush's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan may cost 2.4 trillion dollars. The Bush administration estimated, before it invaded Iraq, that that war would cost no more than 50 million dollars. Ooops. Still, 2.4 trillion works out to only about $ 8,000. for every man, woman and child in the country. I'm sure you're ready to pony up.

The really bad news is that more wars may be on the way. Vice President Cheney has called Iran "the world's most active state sponsor of terror," and promised "serious consequences." Maureen Dowd suggests in the New York Times that Cheney might attack even if he has to do it alone - like Slim Pickens riding down with the bomb in the movie "Dr. Strangelove." Well, at least that would be relatively cheap in both dollars and American lives.

But the Times also reports a Bush speech telling Cubans that the U.S. "will not accept a political which power changes from one Castro brother to another...."

How, for heaven's sake, did it get to be up to us who ought to run Cuba? We tried that once before anyway. We landed a U.S. trained force of Cuban exiles at a place called the Bay of Pigs, and they lost, big time. Why is this any of our business? No, it's not a democracy, but neither is Russia, neither is China. Are we supposed to invade and "reform" them too? What's going on here?

Once upon a time, the U.S. stayed out of wars unless it was attacked: American ship sinkings got us into World War One; Pearl Harbor, into World War Two. We were attacked; we hit back; and we won. It's been a lot murkier lately.

You can spend a day or two arguing how we got into Vietnam, but it's hard to argue that the U.S. was in danger. Vietnamese did not invade us. We lost that war and all the neighboring countries we said we were protecting, instead of being swallowed up by the Communists, stayed independent and prospered.

Iraq never invaded us either. The first President Bush threw Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait after he invaded it, but that was that. This Iraq war, we started. Never used to do that. And for the record, Iran hasn't attacked the U.S. They threw out the shah, whom we helped but in power, but that was in Iran not New Jersey. Cuba's never attacked us either; in fact, we have a military base there.

This administration seems to think it's in charge of the world. It isn't. If you want to play emperor, guys, please go play it somewhere else.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

October 23, 2007

Former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani has, as the Washington Post's Richard Cohen reminds us this week, promised military action against Iran if it develops a nuclear weapon. This was, to put it mildly, a dumb thing to say.

If Iran has a bomb and we attack, won't they use their bomb? Maybe not against us--we're distant--but against, say, Israel which has bombs of its own? And where will we all be then? In some sort of nuclear, regional war probably. Who on earth would wish for one of those?

The United States is the only country that has ever dropped the bomb in wartime - two of them on Japan to end World War Two. Almost all Americans approved of that.

The bombs have gotten much bigger and better since then, of course. Mankind has for the first time, as the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin reminded us a few years ago, the power to destroy God's created order. Whenever I think about that, I'm a little surprised that we haven't done it. We are Pandora as a species; we want to open the box.

But we haven't blown up the planet, haven't attacked each other. We have watched each other, contained each other, and talked to each other. Giuliani may feel Iran is special, but why? Many Americans thought the Soviet Union wanted to rule the world. Many feared Communist China. They became watchers and talkers, like us. India got the bomb. So did Pakistan, not exactly a model of stability these days as Benazir Bhutto's violent homecoming proved. But the planet lives.

What we do, we bomb owners, is watch each other and talk to each other. That's important because it will probably turn out that we can live with each other, can compromise our differences, and let the planet live.

I sometimes wish that Giuliani and the various other wannabe warriors running for president could spend a couple of days on a real battlefield. It isn't pretty, all those wasted young lives. And you never forget the smell.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

October 18, 2007

President Bush held a news conference Tuesday. The Washington Post led with Mr. Bush's declaration that he is still "relevant" to the government. Well, okay. But it's hard to imagine Abraham Lincoln or Franklin Roosevelt or, come to that, Richard Nixon needing to tell reporters that they were relevant. I mean, they were presidents, so of course they were relevant.
This guy? Maybe he did need to say it.

I've thought for years that the worst president in my time was Jimmy Carter. Distinguished ex-prez, of course, but if you're old enough you remember the inflation; you remember his surprise when his friends the Soviets invaded Afghanistan; you remember the fifty-some Americans held hostage in Iran and Mr. Carter's unsuccessful helicopter raid meant to free them--they were finally freed, as it happens, the day Ronald Reagan was inaugurated to succeed the one-term Carter. You remember the video of the president fighting off an attack rabbit while in a canoe (No, I'm not making that up.).

But nowadays, I'm starting to wonder. Mr. Bush could give Mr. Carter a run for his money. No attack rabbits, of course. But after a fine start in the days after 9/11, with the country united in pursuit of the Taliban, the Bush presidency has unraveled. We invaded Iraq for no reason that was ever adequately explained. It hasn't gone well but this president is stubborn and clearly intends to keep the war going and let his successor end it, if he or she wants to.

Domestically? Well, what would you list as the three major accomplishments of the Bush administration? Don't all speak at once, please; I'm trying to write down your answers because I can't think of any. Spying on Americans without a warrant? He likes that but it trashes the Constitution though, to be fair, freedom and privacy usually get abused in wartime.

Bush also said his veto power makes him relevant and that's true. But do you give high marks for vetoing expanded health care for children because he needs to spend the money on the war? Maybe not.

It's true the public gives the Congress as low a rating as it does the president, which probably proves that the voters are paying attention after all. And no, the Congress hasn't passed any of the appropriations bills yet. Maybe it's just a bad year for government at either end of Pennsylvania Ave. But we're more used to do-nothing Congresses than we are to incompetent presidents.

Oh well, there's an election coming up; maybe we can make things better. Maybe.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

October 16, 2007

The picture in The Washington Post was ordinary enough - a woman signing up for Social Security payments.
But it may really have been a picture of a government starting to collapse. That's because the woman was a baby-boomer.
The first of them, born after World War Two ended in 1945, are now sixty-two and eligible for Social Security.

Waves of boomers will follow and the system will gain millions of recipients while the work force paying the taxes to support the system will, relatively, shrink. The Post says Social Security will go into the red in 2017, ten years from now, and go broke in 2041. Medicare goes into debt in 2013 and goes broke in 2019.

Everybody who follows the news knows this is happening, except, maybe, the presidential candidates of both parties who pretty much ignore the hippopotamus sitting in the living room. Republican Fred Thompson has proposed cutting benefits for future retirees but not for anyone getting payments now. None of the others has said anything much, as far as I know. And of course it's painful. There are only two ways to fix the system--cut benefits and/or raise taxes. You can understand why candidates don't like to recommend either of those.

And it's not as if we were saving money to pay the boomers when it's their turn. The budget deficit for fiscal 2007, the year that ended September 30th, was 163 billion dollars. That's way down from what it was two years ago but, still, that's a whole lot of money. And, no, the Congress hasn't passed any of the appropriations bills for this year. And, yes, the President has vetoed a bill expanding health care for poor children. Congress will try to override the veto but will probably fail.

All this suggests a government which is fairly dysfunctional. And that suggests there ought to be a market for a presidential candidate who says this and who campaigns with passion for big, big changes in the way the government works. Big calls for big changes.

But I haven't seen that candidate. Have you?

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

October 10, 2007

Nine Republican candidates debated the economy and some other stuff yesterday. It turns out they're all for tax cuts. Well, of course. If the budget is already in the red, and you're fighting a war in Afghanistan and another in Iraq and maybe thinking about one in Iran, why wouldn't you want to cut taxes?

One of the longshots, Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas, noted that "the system is built to spend," not cut. He had that right, of course. Former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani bragged he'd cut taxes twenty-three times. Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney noted that, as mayor, Giuliani had favored a commuter tax. Well, of course he had. City mayors like commuter taxes because the people who pay them live in the suburbs, not the city, and don't vote in city elections. And Giuliani and Romney argued over who'd cut taxes the most. "I led; he lagged," Giuliani said. "It's a nice line, but it's baloney," Romney answered, "I did not increase taxes....I lowered taxes." And so it went.

Former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson, a newcomer to the race, did not bring the crowd to its feet, but performed respectably and offered an actual specific on cutting spending: cut benefits for future Social Security recipients, though not, of course, for anyone getting the payments now. And that was about as specific as anyone got.

The fact is, of course, that if what has made the United States strong for generations is its middle class, we're in real trouble. The rich are getting richer; the poor are getting poorer. The gap between what CEOs get and what their employees get is the biggest it's ever been and it's growing. The middle is shrinking. A lot of the old union manufacturing jobs have vanished, victims of cheaper labor in other counties or of automation. No one can fix that. The remedies are long term, like adapting to the information age, making our living in high tech jobs where we still have an edge on lower-wage countries, and above all educating our kids to compete in this new and ever-changing world. But there wasn't much talk about that; it might mean more government programs and this was theoretically an anti-government crowd, except that government keeps growing no matter which party is in charge.

The candidates also talked about whether they'd consult Congress before going to war. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas pointed out that the Constitution gives Congress, not the president, the power to declare war. Mike Huckabee noted that presidents might not always have the luxury of consulting that document. John McCain said he'd bypass Congress if "the situation is such that it requires immediate action." Like invading Iraq? I don't know. The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941, a Sunday. Resistance started at once--no orders needed from anyone in Washington for that. Congress declared war the next day. I hope we keep the Constitution around. I like it.

So it was a little frustrating to watch. Fewer candidates and more follow-up questions might have helped. The voters will start helping us with the first part of that in just a few months now.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

October 7, 2007

"Do not go gentle into that good night," the poet Dylan Thomas wrote. "Old age should burn and rave at close of day; rage, rage against the dying of the light." And maybe that's good advice. But not for us Cubs fans. The light's died too regularly, too often every September--or occasionally, like this year, in October-- but it's died for ninety-nine straight years now. Too many for rage. A soft, resigned sigh maybe, but that's about it.

"99 Seasons and Counting," the New York Times correctly headlined, "Cubs Go Out With a Whimper." Well, they are the newspaper of record. Of course, they got it right. Ninety-nine years since they won the World Series. Is there a longer losing streak in any professional sport, anywhere? I doubt it. Next year they'll be going for a century. You'd be a fool to bet against them.

This year, the Arizona Diamondbacks beat them three straight. The suspense went out of the third and last game early when the Diamondbacks' leadoff man, Chris Young, hit Cub starter Rich Hill's first pitch for a home run. You can cite statistics: the Cubs scored only six runs in the three games; their cleanup hitter, Aramis Ramirez, went 0 for 12 in the series; and so on. But it isn't any of that, it's just Cubness.

They lift your heart occasionally, as in the 2003 playoffs, which they went on to lose when a fan caught a foul ball a Cub could have caught. In 1984 they took the first two games in Wrigley from the San Diego Padres. I saw the second of those. You could feel the crowd starting to believe. Foolish, of course. San Diego won the next three and that was that.

So here we are again. Lovely ballpark. Pretty good kielbasa. Losing club. I'd say, "Sic transit gloria Cubbies," but that's wrong too. The glory left long, long ago. Face it, Cubs's just not our century.

Wait 'til the next one?

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

October 3, 2007

Sputnik--that little Soviet moon that went beep-beep--soared into orbit fifty years ago this week beginning a space race and a space age which haven't turned out quite the way we thought they would.

The race started off as you'd have expected--great thumping of chests and gnashing of teeth in America because, gee whiz, aren't we the ones who are good at this stuff? Well, no. Their rocket worked. Ours, the Vanguard, soared four feet into the air and then blew up. We didn't catch up right away either. Their Yuri Gagarin was the first man in space. The United States did catch up in time, of course. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, not two cosmonauts, were first on the moon. Alan Shepherd, in Apollo 14, was the first to play golf there--couple of shots with a 6-iron back in 1971. But then the race seemed to end. Apollo 17 was the last moon mission; NASA had planned a few more but scrapped them. Did anyone care? Was the moon race a Cold War race that ended?

We, and they, and other countries, launched a lot of satellites. But with a few exceptions like the Hubble telescope, they looked not out at the planets but back here at the earth. You remember the famous split infinitive on the old "Star Trek" shows? "To boldly go where no man has gone..." That's not what happened. Instead, we used satellites to change life on earth. We bounce TV shows off them. We make telephone calls using them. We survey the earth and the oceans with them. If that box in your car tells you to make a left turn as you're driving to Grandma's house, that's satellite stuff, too. Countries' armed forces use satellites to spy on other countries' armed forces. But it's earth stuff, not space stuff.

Will we go out again? This president has talked about going back to the moon and on to Mars. But talk is cheap. Space travel is very expensive and NASA is not spending money on new hardware for such voyages just now. And the Soviet Union has, of course, imploded. The U.S and Russia still man the international space station, but it isn't finished.

Will we go out again? The last few decades have taught us that we don't always win the wars--Vietnam, Iraq--and that we don't seem able to give all our children a decent education, don't seem able to end hunger in our land. Will we go once more a-roving?
I used to think so. Now I'm not so sure.

Monday, October 1, 2007

October 1, 2007

I've been reading a lot of stories lately about how Hillary Clinton is becoming the "inevitable" Democratic nominee. Don't bet big money on it. Nothing is more fragile in politics that inevitability, especially when nobody--that's nobody--has voted yet. I should know; I'm old enough to remember President Muskie. For those of you who aren't, Edmund Muskie was a popular Democratic senator from Maine. He'd gotten good reviews as Humbert Humphrey's running mate in 1968. In the early days of the '72 campaign, the polls showed him the frontrunner among the Democrats; some showed him beating Richard Nixon in a general election. It didn't last. The Democrats had some new rules in effect in '72, and Iowa held its first-ever presidential caucuses that year. A fairly unknown South Dakota senator, George McGovern, had studied the new system, campaigned hard in Iowa and finished, as we all wrote, a surprisingly strong second to Muskie. Then, in New Hampshire, Muskie choked up, or broke down, while denouncing the publisher of the Manchester Union Leader for printing attacks on Muskie's wife, Jane. It made for dramatic TV footage. I remember a voter in some other state a week or two later saying, "I was for him until the day he sat down in the snow and cried." In fact, Muskie was standing the whole time. Did he cry? His face was wet, but a lot of that was snow. "Cry" was a verb we mostly didn't use. But he did choke up, break down, whatever - and that was pretty much that. Last time there was Vermont Gov. Howard Dean--way ahead in fund raising, way ahead in endorsements, Al Gore, Bill Bradley and a small army of governors and senators. And then, instead of just awarding him the nomination, Iowa held those pesky caucuses again. Gov. Dean finished third and that finished him. John Kerry was the nominee and, of course, lost to George W. Bush. So inevitability is tricky. Clinton is doing what frontrunners do--playing it safe, ducking questions, straddling issues. "Don't make a mistake," is the frontrunner's mantra. But that in itself can be a mistake. While Clinton's favorable ratings are up in in most polls, so are her unfavorables--high thirties, low forties, somewhere in there. And she's been in our faces for sixteen years now. Voters may want someone new. Anyway, to paraphrase Mr. Yogi Berra, it ain't over.