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.