Wednesday, March 26, 2008

March 26, 2008

     Is race now an issue in the presidential campaign?  Oh yes.  Some thoughts on it:
     "The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three strike law and then wants us to sing 'God Bless America.'  No, no, no, God damn America, that's in the Bible for killing innocent people."  Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama's former pastor, 2003.
     "The profound mistake of Reverend Wright's sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society.  It's that he spoke as if our society was static;  as if no progress had been made;  as if this country--a country that has made it possible for one of his own members to run for the highest office in the land and build a coalition of white and black, Latino and Asian, rich and poor, young and old, is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past.  But what we that America can change."  Barack Obama, March 18, 2008.
     "I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label.  Was not Jesus an extremist?  An extremist for love, truth, and goodness... One has a moral obligation to disobey unjust laws.  We should never forget that everything Adolph Hitler did in Germany was 'legal.'   Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.  All segregation statutes are unjust." Dr. Martin Luther King, Letter from a Birmingham Jail, 1962.
     "What we need in the United States is not division;  what we need in the United States is not hatred;  what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love and wisdom and compassion toward one another and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black."  Robert Kennedy, April 4, 1968, breaking the news of Dr. King's assassination to a mostly black crowd at a campaign rally in Indianapolis, Indiana.
     "The fact is that the comments that have been made and the issues that have surfaced over the last few weeks reflect the complexities of race in this country that we've never really worked through--a part of our union that we have not yet made perfect.  And if we walk away now, if we simply retreat into our respective corners, we will never be able to come together and solve challenges like health care or education or the need to find good jobs for every American."  Barack Obama, March 18, 2008.
     "I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.'"  Martin Luther King, August 28, 1968. 

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

March 25, 2008

Hillary Clinton says she "misspoke" when she said she had landed under sniper fire on a trip to Bosnia in 1996. She said it was a "minor blip." Well, not exactly.

She said "I remember landing under sniper fire. There was supposed to be some kind of a greeting ceremony but instead we just ran with our heads down to get into the vehicles to get to our base." The Associated Press reported on the trip and said Clinton was under no extraordinary risks. A traveling companion said he didn't remember gunfire or the threat of gunfire. And Mrs. Clinton herself says in her book that "Due to reports of snipers...around the airstrip, we were forced to cut short an event on the tarmac with local children, though we did have time to meet them and their teachers...." No canceled event, no running for the vehicles. There's also a video that shows Mrs. Clinton and her daughter walking across the tarmac, smiling, waving and shaking hands.

The obvious question, not easily answered, is: what gets into them? In the first place, being shot at is something you'd probably remember. I covered a number of wars when I was a young reporter and I don't remember every time the units I was with drew fire, but that was forty-some years ago and, if it had only happened once, I expect I would remember it. Wouldn't you?

So she made it up to impress people with what a warrior she's been and what a good commander-in-chief she'd be? But why? She's an intelligent woman; she must have remembered there were reporters and photographers along and so an exaggerated version of what happened would be found out and exposed. Besides, her husband was commander in chief for eight years and he'd been a draft dodger.

I think the simplest explanation may be the true one. You get very tired campaigning--all those sixteen-hour days saying the same things over and over and over again, and when you get very tired your tongue, or maybe your brain, slips for a moment. And I don't think it has much to do with her qualifications to be president.

Presidents have a big staff, a big house, and a nice office. They lead much more sheltered lives than the candidates do.

Monday, March 24, 2008

March 24, 2008

     The baseball season starts this week, which may explain why I woke up in the middle of the night pondering the odd resemblances between George W. Bush and the Chicago Cubs.
     The Cubs' losing streak is longer, of course. They last won the World Series a century ago in 1908.  Mr. Bush's losing streak is only eight years long and can't get any longer, thank heaven.  But he's lost bigger stuff--started an unnecessary war against a country that was not a threat to the United States, and he is now watching the economy tank big time.  The Cubs just finish somewhere at the back of the pack every year.
     They've had some bright spots--won the National League pennant in, I think, 1945, just a little over half a century ago.  And Mr. Bush has had some bright spots too--showed up on time for both inaugurations, for instance.
     Sportswriters like to describe the Cubs as "lovable losers."  I don't know how you prove lovability, but it's certainly true that the fans keep coming out to see them year after losing year after losing year.  Is Mr. Bush a lovable loser.  Well, a loser surely.  I think it's only fair to assume that Laura loves him, and presumably the twins.  And the dog, I suppose;  dogs are affectionate.
     Another resemblance--they both work in really nice places.  Mr. Bush has that big white house and the Cubs have Wrigley Field, one of the surviving wonderful old ball parks, with ivy growing on the outfield walls.
     There are differences too, of course.  The Cubs, I think, would really like to please their fans, to win the big one, to be loved.  The Bush administration wouldn't care.  Told that the fans were tired of a century of losses, I can just hear Mr. Bush's spokesman, Vice President Cheney:  "So?"     


Thursday, March 20, 2008

March 19, 2008

Where have all the young men gone?
Long time passing.
Gone for soldiers every one....
No, it's not as bad as Vietnam. The American death toll in the Iraq war is at 4,000. The Vietnam Wall in Washington has 58,000 names. Still, the Iraq war is five years old and I'll bet many of us would have a hard time telling a stranger what it's about.
Vietnam was about containing Communism, except that Ho Chi Minh won.  The Vietnamese then learned that Marxism doesn't work. They kept the rhetoric while abandoning the practice in favor of joint ventures with capitalist companies and countries.
Why did we invade Iraq?  Saddam Hussein was a dictator, of course, but George W. Bush never promised to overthrow all the dictators in the world.   Iraq was not any kind of threat to the United States.  An American-led coalition had thrown Saddam out of Kuwait a few years earlier and he was certainly smart enough to know that he wouldn't do any better the second time around.
President Bush, in a birthday speech about the war, said that it was "noble" and "necessary."  Nobility, I suppose, is in the eye of the beholder, but necessary?  For what?  The army needed practice?
The President also said in his speech that the war is being won.  Well, the level of violence is down, though it's flared up a bit in the last couple of weeks.  But if the original idea was to create some sort of stable country, some sort of system that could peacefully accommodate its three warring groups--Sunnis, Shia, and Kurds--it's hard to see that we've made any progress at all.  The political system is as broken-down as ever.  And oil production's a mess too, if that's what the war was about.
Do the Iraqis want us there?  They tell pollsters no.  Are we doing anything useful there?  Not that I can see.  The Iraqis will have to figure out their own politics.  We can't.
Where have all the soldiers gone?
Long time ago,
Gone to graveyards every one.
When will they ever learn? 

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Tuesday, March 18, 2008

March 18, 2008

    I don't know.  Is it something in the water we drink here in the East?  Or some anti-fidelity extract a mad wizard is sending to State Houses?
     Okay, Eliot Spitzer admitted paying prostitutes for sex and then resigned.  That's one governor, nothing so unusual there.  But now his successor, Gov. David Paterson, says he and his wife both had affairs some years ago, though he adds that they then sought counseling and saved their clearly troubled marriage.  Does that mean he needn't resign?
     And former New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevey says that he and his wife Dina had three-way sex with an aide, Teddy Pederson.  Dina McGreevey says no we didn't.  The aide says yes we did, but I only touched her, it wasn't gay stuff.  What's a poor newspaper reader to do?
     Once upon a time, reporters didn't report sex.  The late Hugh Sidey, who covered the Kennedy White House for Time, used to say that all the regulars knew about the girl friends, they just didn't write about it.  That day is gone, of course.
     One solution, I suppose, would be for politicians to be faithful to spouses, but that seems hopelessly naive.  I have no idea whether governors, say, are more adulterous than ordinary people.  But, of course, it's different.  Most people probably don't care whether Joe Doaks, who lives down the block, is faithful to his wife Jill, or she to him.  It's different with elected leaders, people we in theory respect.
     Do we lose respect for them when they cheat?  I think so, probably.  I think people lost respect for Bill Clinton when they learned about Monica and the pizza and all that.  If you say "President Clinton," it's sex people think of first, not the fact that he actually had a couple of balanced budgets, which is astonishing considering how his successor has done.
     But it is odd, this concentration of lurid stuff here in the East.  Whaddya hear from Connecticut?

Sunday, March 16, 2008

March 16, 2008

     Forty years ago this day, American troops entered a Vietnamese village named My Lai and killed many unarmed civilians.  No one knows how many.  If you go there, the survivors--old women as I remember-- will tell you it was several hundred.  Ron Haberle, an Army photographer who was there, remembered, "Some of the people were trying to get up and run. They couldn't and fell down.  This one woman, I remember, she stood up and tried to make it--tried to run--with a small child in her arms.  But she didn't make it."
     The platoon commander who ordered the shooting, William Calley, was court martialed. He was a little guy--five feet four, the clippings say--and undistinguished, but his company had been taking casualties and he just snapped--fired himself, told his men to fire on the unarmed villagers.  There was no resistance.  Calley was convicted in 1971 of the premeditated murder of twenty-two civilians and sentenced to life imprisonment.  But President Richard Nixon freed him pending an appeal.  In the end he served a relatively short sentence under house arrest (his girl friend could visit him) and then went home to run a jewelry business in Columbus, Georgia.
     The story sickened many Americans.  It helped turn some of the troops against the war and they came to Washington in 1971 and demonstrated against the war.  They went to Arlington "to see our friends."  And on the last day they threw their medals (well, John Kerry, the most prominent of them, threw somebody else's) over the chickenwire fence Congress had put up on the Capitol steps to protect itself, I guess, from the vets.
     It was a ling time ago.  Why bring it up now?  Because this weekend another group--called, like the first one, Winter Soldier--met in Silver Spring, Maryland, a Washington suburb, to protest what they had been ordered to do in the Iraq war. The Washington Post reported a former Marine, Joe Turner, saying, "I'm sorry for the hate and destruction I've inflicted upon innocent people."  Or Cliff Hicks, a former soldier, describing a helicopter gunship attack on an apartment building in Baghdad: "It was the most destructive thing I've ever seen, before or since."   
     The more things change, a wise man once said, the more they stay the same.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

March 11, 2008

     "Day one," Eliot Spitzer proclaimed as he took office as New York's governor, "everything changes."  But nah.  Everything stayed about the same.
     You can see all the ghosts standing beside him as he admitted sin.  Larry Craig, a senator, talking about that airport men's room;  David Vitter, another senator, talking about being with a prostitute.  Or further back:  Gary Hart, a presidential hopeful, photographed aboard the good ship Monkey Business;  Bill Clinton, an actual president, "No, I did not have sex with that woman. Monica Lewinsky."  But you lied, sir, and we all learned about the presidential semen stain on Ms. Lewinsky's blue dress.  Once upon a time it was different.  Franklin Roosevelt had a mistress, John Kennedy had affairs, and reporters didn't write about them.  But that was a very long time ago, not now.
     These guys--Spitzer and the rest--all knew that, of course, and went ahead anyway.  I've never seen any statistics, but I suspect that if you're an average guy with an average life, your chances of committing adultery undetected are pretty good.  But if reporters and photographers follow you around, that isn't true.  And these guys--Spitzer and the rest--all knew that too.  So why run the risk? 
     Maybe arrogance is part of it. Politicians have to take risks, simply by running for office.  And if you win, you may think, hey, I'm pretty good, I can do just about anything.  Spitzer apparently called himself "The Steamroller," a description of his success in clearing away obstacles, I think, not of his technique in bed. So now here he is, father of three teen-aged daughters, with Republicans demanding that he quit.
     Clinton, Craig, and Vitter didn't quit.  Hart ran for president saying, "Let the voters decide."  They did;  they weren't for him.  Now it's Spitzer's turn.  But in or out, we know how he'll be remembered.
     To paraphrase an old song: "Where have all the young pols gone?/ Gone to girlfriends every one./ When will they ever learn? When will they ever learn?"   


Monday, March 10, 2008

March 9, 2008

     Well, no, the fat lady didn't sing in Wyoming and no one expects her to warble in Mississippi this Tuesday either.  Fact is, she's walked off stage, may have gone out for a long lunch, couple of martinis, whatever.  The small states just don't have that many delegates, and the next big state, Pennsylvania, is weeks away.  It may not settle things either because Democrats, unlike Republicans, don't have winner-take-all primaries;  they have proportional representation so, if you win a fairly close election, you get just a few more delegates than the guy you beat.  A system only Democrats could love, right?
     So it may come down to the superdelegates. The Dems have almost 800 of them, and they may be the ones who decide the nomination this year.  How will they do that?  Some say they'll vote the way people in their district did.  Congressman John Lewis, for instance, switched from Clinton to Obama because voters in his Atlanta, Georgia, district were overwhelmingly for Obama.  But some say no, if it's close, if the two are within, say, a hundred delegates of each other, the superdelegates should just use their best judgment as to who would be the stronger candidate in the general election.
     And what do the candidates do as this long race plays out?  Hillary Clinton, presumably, stays on the attack.  Hey, she'll tell herself, I cut him up pretty good in Ohio,  Pennsylvania is sort of like Ohio, and I've got a knife in each hand, so let's rock and roll!  Obama has a harder choice.  He ran on the new politics, promising to change the partisan wrangling which has so crippled government these last few years.  Now that he's lost some primaries, does he switch?  If he does, do voters say, heck, he's just one more old pol, a hack like the rest of them?  Or do they applaud him for fighting back?  Tough call.
     And John McCain?  His challenge is to stay in the news, to share the front page with the Democrats.  And, maybe, to win over conservatives.  L. Brent Bozell of the Media Research Center has a long piece in Sunday's Washington Post, listing McCain's departures from conservative orthodoxy, calling on him to make America "honor the sanctity of life, the sanctity of marriage and family" for instance.  But one reason reporters tend to like McCain is that when he tries to be a traditional politician, he gets his lines wrong and usually makes a mess of it.
     Hey, fat lady--take your time.  It's all right with me.   


Wednesday, March 5, 2008

March 5, 2008

     For the Democrats, the fat lady didn't sing;  the opera goes on.  The voting in Texas and Ohio, according to exit polls, was like the voting in other states--Obama in general did best with younger, better educated voters and better with independents, who could vote in both states, than with Democrats.  More than forty percent of those polled, in both states, said they would be satisfied with either candidate as the nominee.
     But that could change.  So far, Obama has waged a fairly positive campaign.  Clinton used some negatives;  facing elimination, she probably felt she had to.  Now, of course, they may both go negative.  There's a pause in the schedule--Wyoming has caucuses thus weekend, Mississippi has its primary next week, but no big state votes until Pennsylvania, April 22nd, weeks away.  Lots of time to plan new attack ads.
     But will Obama do that?  I was struck by a memo a friend e-mailed me, written by Melissa Harris-Lacewell,  a professor of politics and African American studies at Princeton.  She writes that Obama, like a modern-day Martin Luther King, is "leading a 21st century non-violent political campaign."  Obama's supporters will want him to attack, she writes, but "He is asking us to trust that he is tough enough to absorb the blows and remain firmly planted on the political high road he is trying to blaze for the country."
     Obama himself, in an e-mail, wrote, " We knew the closer we got to the change we seek, the more we'd see of the politics we are trying to end--the attacks and distortions that try to distract us from the issues that matter...."  This time, he went on "it will not work."
     Well, we'll see.  Politicians use negative ads because they often do work, and certainly Sen. Clinton won big Tuesday night.  She still trails in total delegates won, but only by a hundred or so out of more than 2000 selected so far.
     We'll learn, between now and Pennsylvania, more about the candidates.  We know Clinton is tough;  will she stay on the attack?  Can Obama take a licking and keep on ticking?   If you like campaigns, this is a vintage year. 


Monday, March 3, 2008

March 3, 2008

     Bob Shrum, a longtime Democratic campaign consultant, may have summed up the party's presidential race this year.  Appearing on "Meet the Press" he said it was generational, as if Clinton were the Beach Boys and then suddenly the Beatles came to America.  She would be singing, what, "Be True to Your School?"   She is kind of the traditional candidate, old school if you will.  He'd be singing, maybe, "I Wanna Hold Your Hand?"   He has kind of romanced the party.
     Mrs. Clinton talks a lot about experience, stressing that she has it and he doesn't.  And you want an experienced commander in chief answering the phone when it rings at 3 o'clock in the morning.  The problem is, her experience in those situations was that of the spouse.  We all assumed, I think, that if that phone rang in the Clinton White House it would be Bill not Hillary who picked it up and said yes, bomb them or no, don't.
     Her experience as an independent decision-making person is, like Obama's, in the Senate.  She's been there longer but you have to be a real optimist to believe that tenure in the place increases one's wisdom.  I don't think so.  
    Their positions on the issues?  Fairly close to each other.  You can cite differences in their approach to health care, say, but they aren't big differences.  Any plan will get scuffed up and changed as it moves through Congress anyway.
     Besides, I've never thought voters really based their choices on issues.  Occasionally, maybe, on really big ones--were you for or against the war in Vietnam, for or against the Civil Rights Act.  But mostly, I think voters judge on character--is he or she a good person?  Believable?  Likely to get us into a war?  These are sometimes hard calls.  Who knew in advance that this president would blunder into invading a dictatorship which, while bad, was no threat at all to the United States?
     Tuesday, voters in four states will ask themselves those questions and, maybe, decide who the nominee will be.  The political junkie in me hopes that they won't settle it.  I still long to hear something I've never heard, the chairman of the convention saying, "As we begin the second ballot...."   We'll see.