Monday, June 30, 2008

June 30, 2008

     I asked a better writer for help on this one.


     "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal...."  Well, we'd add women now, of course.  "That they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."  We fudged there, of course.  All the new Americans had life.  Women did not have liberty; they were generally supposed to obey their husbands, though some found ways around that.  And the slaves certainly didn't have liberty.  The pursuit of Happiness?  Hard to chase it when you're chopping someone else's cotton.


   "That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed...."  Kind of, though as I've noted, everybody didn't have those rights back then.  "That whenever any Government becomes destructive of those ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it."  We altered and abolished our own, of course, fighting a long and costly civil war to end slavery.  We helped beat Hitler, who had about as negative a view of human rights as anyone who ever lived.  On the other hand, we've overthrown or helped overthrow some popular governments in Latin America because they didn't favor us.


     "Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes..."  We've been pretty good, I think, about that.  One Congressman, Dennis Kucinich, wants to impeach President Bush, but the rest of the Congress knows he's eccentric and doesn't take him seriously.


     "But when a long train of abuses and usurpations...evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government...."  Do you suppose they read the Declaration in Zimbabwe?  In Egypt?  Go for it, guys, it's the American way.   




Sunday, June 29, 2008

JUNE 29, 2008

The Fourth of July's this week, our national day. It's a good time to think about America, the place the poet Langston Hughes called, "the land that never was/ and yet must be./ The land where every man is free."

Our country has always been based on that kind of a dream. I think we've moved away from it lately under a president who thinks torture is okay, who thinks putting people in jail without charging them with anything, without the right to a trial, is okay. That is not the America that I grew up in. And anyone who goes abroad can tell other countries think less well of us than they used to. But we have a chance to change that this year when we elect a new president. I think either John McCain or Barack Obama believes in "the land that yet must be" a lot more than George W. Bush ever did.

We were never promised an easy dream. We have never moved forward in a straight line. We slip and slide--slavery here, emancipation there. Men voting here, all Americans voting there. We inch forward, as I have said before, but we do keep moving. The dream is more real for more Americans today than it was fifty or a hundred years ago.

John Kennedy used to end his campaign speeches with a quote from the poet Robert Frost, "The woods are lovely, dark and deep/ But I have promises to keep/ and miles to go before I sleep." We aren't nearly there yet. Some of us are racists, or sexists. Some of us despise people whose religions differ from our own. But we have kept the dream alive, one way or another, for more than two hundred years now.

We've been in a bad patch lately, but we do have promises to keep. We may not see the dream come true for everyone. But our kids, or their kids, may. "Got to keep on a-walkin'," the old civil rights movement song said, "Keep on a walkin', till we get to Freedom Land."

We may have miles to go before we sleep, but it's time to start walking again. Happy Fourth.

Friday, June 27, 2008

June 27, 2008

     It's odd, I know, but I've always thought the comma was important, the second comma that is.


     The Second Amendment reads, "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."  The comma separates the clause about a militia from the simple declarative clause that the right to keep and bear arms shall not be messed with.  I understand all the arguments for gun control--fewer guns, fewer murders, and so on--but if the Supreme Court is supposed to interpret the Constitution, not issue decrees to make the country better, then I think the Justices got it right when they ruled Washington D.C.'s ban on handgun ownership unconstitutional.


     Members of militias back then tended, I suspect, to show up at the assembly point carrying their own weapons which they had kept at home.  They didn't expect the government to issue them a new one. Many back then lived in the country, not the cities;  many probably used those weapons to hunt for food.


     And if Americans really want to ban handguns, they can, of course, by amending the Constitution.  We've amended it over the years to rid it of several bad things, like slavery.  We imposed and then junked prohibition.  We gave women the right to vote.  If two-thirds of the House and Senate and three-fourths of the states approve a proposed amendment, it takes effect.


     I very much doubt there's enough support in the country for a handgun banning amendment, but if there is, there's a way to do it.  Proving, again, that the Constitution is a fine and durable piece of parchment, well worth the keeping.






Tuesday, June 24, 2008

JUNE 24, 2008

       A couple of tempests in a couple of teapots.  Charlie Black, a senior McCain advisor, says that another terrorist attack would help his guy.  Furor.  Outrage.  McCain rejects the comment;  Obama attacks it.  Wait a minute, guys, what's going on here?  In the interest of fair disclosure, I should say that I know and like Black from past campaigns I covered.  He wasn't saying - and he's way too smart to say - that he wants there to be another terrorist attack.  Nobody wants that, for heaven's sake.  What he was saying, as a simple matter of political analysis, was:   if the voters' attention swings away from the soggy economy and back to terrorism, foreign affairs, and so on, that helps McCain because that's where his experience is.  On economics he sometimes seems under-informed and/or disinterested. That's all Black meant, and that's true, of course.  Can we all stop fussing now?


     Tempest two:  Barack Obama renounces public financing for the general election after he said he wouldn't.  He lied to us.  Well, technically he probably did, but he made what was a politically sensible decision.  Remember how John Kerry got hammered four years ago by independent groups--Swift Boat Vets for Truth, and so on.  They mounted a truly vicious attack on his war record.  I think he was even accused once of exaggerating the severity of one of his wounds.  I mean, the government gave the man a Purple Heart, but all, of course, is fair in politics and war.


     Kerry was stuck, to a degree, because he didn't have enough money to counterattack.  It's preposterous--public financing provides millions of dollars but not enough to do everything you want or need to do.  And Obama has had great success raising money on the internet.  He's had big givers, too, of course, though not as many as McCain.  Obama really pioneered raising money on the internet and feels that will work for him in the fall as well.  It's almost a sure thing that he will face tough Republican attacks just as Kerry did.  Not about his war record--he hasn't one--but the whole array of rumors--he's Muslim, he's unpatriotic, and so on.  Race will surface somewhere in there, too.  He wants to have enough money to shoot back, as Kerry could not.


     Public financing seems good in principle, but it's very hard to create a really level playing field with those independent groups who have every right to speak out, tilting the odds.    


June 22, 2008

     I always have fun learning about new Bushisms.  Garry Trudeau has several in Sunday's "Doonesbury."  I think my favorite is, "What I'm telling you is there's too many junk lawsuits suing too many doctors," but there are others.


     My real favorite isn't a grammatical blooper at all.  It's when he said several years ago, "I'm the decider."  That's just dead wrong and betrays Mr. Bush's perhaps willful misreading of the Constitution, a document for which he seems to have little use.  The men who wrote the Constitution, of course, didn't want a decider in the government.  They'd had one--also a George, as it happens, King George III.  They fought and won a war to get rid of him, and when they set up a government to replace him, they made sure there was no decider.  That power was divided among three branches of government. 


    So the Congress can pass a law, but the president can veto that law, but the Congress can override the veto by a two-thirds majority, but the Supreme Court can declare the law unconstitutional, but...and so on.  Divided, limited power.


     This failed president seems to believe that in wartime the president is all-powerful.  He can order torture which most of us, including the only tortured Member of Congress, John McCain, think is unconstitutional.  He can order anyone he doesn't like--enemy combatants is the usual phrase--held forever without being charged with anything, without being told what evidence, if any, the government has of whatever they're supposed to have done, without a trial or a lawyer or any of that legal stuff.


     This failed president thinks he can search your house or read your mail or tap your phone without a court order, even though Congress set up a special court which pretty routinely grants such requests.  And so on.  And so on. The defense is always that we're at war.  But losing the Constitution might be even worse than losing a war.


     I like the Constitution and think it has served this country amazingly well.  I don't know how many or what kid of debates John McCain and Barack Obama will have, but I hope one question they get asked is, "Do you believe in the Constitution and as president, would you try to obey it?" 

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

June 18, 2008

    "I have never had a president who inspired me the way people tell me that my father inspired them.  But for the first time, I believe I found the man who could be that president--not just for me, but for a new generation of Americans."   That was Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg endorsing Barack Obama, a rare step into the spotlight for a woman who has done something amazing--having a private life while bearing the most famous name in American politics.


     Now she is playing another role in the Obama campaign as one of the people who will help him choose his running mate.  She'll be good at it, I expect, as she's been good at most of what she's done with her life.  She'll be good at it in part because she won't be worrying about who might help Obama carry which state.  That electoral stuff usually doesn't make much difference anyway, except for 1960, when John Kennedy needed Lyndon Johnson to carry Texas.  She'll be thinking more of character, I expect, and that's just fine.


     But what I've really always admired about Mrs. Schlossberg is her ability to stay out of the spotlight except for when she wants to be in it.  She got a B.A. from Radcliffe, a law degree from Columbia, interned at the New York Daily News (but you didn't see her name in the paper much) and went to work at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art where she met her husband, exhibit designer Edwin Schlossberg.


     The wedding made news, of course;  Maria Shriver was the maid of honor.  But then the Schlossbergs began a quiet married life.  They've raised three children (the oldest is twenty now)  but we don't see their pictures in the tabloids, we don't know what they eat for breakfast.  That's not because the news media wouldn't print all that stuff if they could;  it's because they can't.  The Schlossbergs are very, very good at privacy.  I think that's admirable and  I'll bet they do, too, every time they see or read about some other poor celebrity squirming as the spotlight glares.   Being a Kennedy isn't easy.  Mrs. Schlossberg does it very well.   

Monday, June 16, 2008

June 16, 2008

Finally, some good news from Iraq! It's that negotiations on a new status of forces agreement between us and them have temporarily broken down.

That's because the Iraqis, bless them, are saying that the U.S. wants too much--too many bases and absolute freedom for its military forces to do whatever they want, whether the Iraqis object or not.

Now, this is real progress. It's not enough, of course. What we really need is for Nouri al-Maliki to demand that we not only reduce our forces and give the Iraqis some authority over their own country but that in fact we simply turn the country over to its citizens and go home--troops, tanks, guns, and all. Wouldn't that be a terrific development?

I know, I know, it won't happen. But even this president, who seems to have a tin ear for the sounds of history, must wake up in the morning sometimes and wonder--gee, more that four thousand of our people dead, and for what? Maybe, if we're very lucky, this new Iraqi demand for some say in what happens to them will make Mr. Bush angry, angry enough to say, okay, if you won't play by our rules, we're outta here.

Sure it's a long shot, but you've got to have hope, don't you?

Thursday, June 12, 2008

June 12, 2008

On this day in 1987, President Ronald Reagan, speaking in the divided city of Berlin, challenged Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to "tear down this wall." Gorbachev did not rush to obey, of course, but the wall did come down, the Soviet Union broke apart, and the Cold War ended. What American presidents said back then mattered.

President George W. Bush is in Europe this week, the last visit planned during his presidency. Do you know where he's been? Do you remember anything he's said? I don't either, and I'll bet most Europeans don't. Theodore Roosevelt advised walking softly and carrying a big stick. This president, with a tired military fighting in two wars, is walking softly, all right, but he's carrying a very small stick.

Europe doesn't have to pay as much attention to us as it used to. Neither does anybody else.

No one power--not America, not Russia, not China--is going to rule the world in the near future. Power will be shared; several major powers will each have zones of influence. But Mr. Bush's successor is going to have to try to restore some of the influence this president has let slip away.

Mr. Bush acknowledged to the Times of London this week that he regrets some of his hot cowboy talk when he invaded Iraq - "dead or alive," phrases like that. But he didn't seem in that interview to regret the war at all, which is astonishing. More than 4,000 Americans dead, more than 100,000 (no real count exists) Iraqis dead, and for what? We killed Saddam Hussein, but was his death worth all that? And if the President has some clear idea of where we're headed in Iraq, I must have missed it.

Oh well. The next president is almost bound to do better. America remains a major power and has a role to play in trying to keep the planet peaceful. Mr. Bush just never figured out what that role was.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

June 11, 2008

The late Senator Barry Goldwater, announcing his presidential candidacy in 1964, said he would offer "a choice and not an echo." That's what we have again this year: two very different men from two very different traditions competing for the presidency.

John McCain, a career Navy man, son and grandson of admirals, hero (years in a Vietnamese prison camp attest to that), and a sometimes unorthodox politician. If he wins, we'll never have had a president quite like him. "A man more driven by...honor than ideology, predisposed to believe in his own virtue," Michael Gerson writes in the Washington Post. His personality has made him some enemies in the Senate, just as his candor made him many friends among reporters.

He likes the maverick label and on some issues--immigration, getting rid of earmarks (those little goodies for their districts Congressmen love to hide in major bills) he is one. On the other hand his economic policy reads like pretty standard GOP doctrine to me: continue the Bush tax cuts which mainly help the wealthy, tax breaks for industry, and so on.

And then Barack Obama. I've just finished his autobiography "Dreams from My Father." One thing immediately sets him apart from most of the politicians I've known: he's a terrific writer, really good. And of course the life story is extraordinary--Kenyan father, Kansas mother, early childhood in school in Indonesia. When have we ever had a president with a background like that? And how would the world react, after all the anti-Americanism this administration has produced, to seeing a person of color in the Oval Office. What effect would that have on our relations with countries in Asia and Africa? What effect would it have on race relations here at home?

Obama runs as the herald of some new centrism. But his voting record is much more traditional liberal. The journal Politico says that from 2005 to 2007 he voted with his party 97% of the time. Which way would he go as president? We have some months yet in which to explore that.

But what a treat! Two very different men with very different messages, but both men who'll get the voters fired up, enthusiastic. Or so I hope, anyway.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

June 08, 2008

She said a classy good-bye. Like every other Clinton event (his or hers) I ever covered, it started late--forty minutes or so late. But she made a fine speech, endorsed Obama gracefully and drew lots of applause.

Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama both made history this past week. He proved that a black man could be the presidential nominee of one of the major parties (I'm grateful to "Meet the Press" for reminding me that Robert Kennedy said back in the 1960s that a black would be nominated within the next forty years); she proved that a woman could. No, she didn't win but she came so close she proved a woman could. If her campaign had, for instance, paid more attention to the caucus states, she probably would have won.

That said, it seems clear that the Democrats need to clean up their nominating act. Caucuses here, primaries there. Texas, always an outsized place, had one of each. Senator Clinton won the primary; Obama won the caucuses, I guess, and came away with one more delegate than she. Caucuses, of course, discriminate against people who have to work in the evening, when they're usually held, or who have little kids and can't leave the house for an hour or two. So, you can make an argument for allowing only primaries. I've always thought a series of regional primaries would be a good idea, with a different region going first in each cycle. But you can argue against that. New Hampshire is a small state and while the primary doesn't bring as much money into it as fall foliage or skiing, it brings a lot every four years. Clearly the current system can be improved. Your six year-old could probably improve it, in fact.

So now the main event begins with two very different men slugging it out. John McCain is aged, has a military background with a hero's biography, and doesn't seem to know much about the economy. Barack Obama is young, trails some rock star glamour, though that's ebbed a bit lately, and probably knows next to nothing about war.

McCain has suggested ten town hall debates. That seems like a good idea. More are better than one or two because one gaffe--Gerald Ford's insistence that Poland wasn't part of the Soviet Empire, for instance--wouldn't loom so large. And a format which minimized reporters would be good--maybe one moderator with questions from real people in the audience.

Anyway, something like that. Let the argument begin, please.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

June 4, 2008


     I thought the opera was over, so I told the fat lady to start singing.  But she couldn't.  Hillary Clinton had bound and gagged her and was sitting on her chest.


     What happens now?  Beats me.  Mrs. Clinton did not concede in her Tuesday night speech.  She noted instead that she had carried the swing states--Pennsylvania, Ohio, and so on--that the Democrats will need in the fall.  Her campaign chairman introduced as the "next president of the United States."  Hunh?  In her speech she asked, "What does Hillary want?" and answered, "I want the nearly 18 million people who voted for me to be respected and heard."  She can keep her campaign going, of course, in the hope that for some reason superdelegates who've come out for Obama will suddenly change their minds and switch to her.  But it's hard to imagine why many of them would do that. 


     And she let it be known that she wouldn't refuse the second spot on the ticket either.  We don't know, as this is written, how Senator Obama feels about that but I think it's a terrible idea.


     In the first place, they probably don't like each other much by now.  Why should they, when they've been slamming each other for months?   But there's a more important reason.  If they combine and win, what will they do with Bill?  It was hard to imagine him as First Guy if his wife had won?  But Second Guy?  It's really hard to imagine him not at the head table at the formal dinner, not to imagine him charging into the Oval Office saying, "Wait a minute, Barack, I'll take care of that!"  And who answers when someone walks in and asks, "Mr. President?"


     Then, too, a lot of people are tired of Clintons and Bushes.  It would probably be a mistake for Obama, who runs as someone who will change Washington, to share the ticket with someone who represents the past.


     I don't who Obama will pick, of course.  But if he wants a woman there are others in the Senate.  Barbara Mikulski is smart and tough, for instance.  A Republican?  Chuck Hagel of Nebraska comes to mind.


     Again, I don't know.  But it's been a fine campaign so far and the good news is, it isn't over yet.  







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Monday, June 2, 2008

June 1, 2008


     The first time I ever wrote about Robert Kennedy, he was a mouthy lawyer on a Senate committee investigating labor racketeering.  His brother was a senator on the committee, so you know how the kid got the job.   I remember Edward Bennett Williams, the lawyer for the Teamsters' boss Jimmy Hoffa, making fun of Kennedy on some point of law:  "I'm sure the LAWYERS on the committee, Mr. Kennedy, all know...."  Kennedy looked like he wanted to come down to the witness table and punch Williams out.


     He was tough and abrasive during his brother's presidential campaign too, the guy who could say no.  A campaign needs one of those.


     His brother's death was what changed him.  He started reading philosophers, Greek poets.  He discovered racism, toured and talked to American blacks about their lives.  He discovered poverty and talked to poor people about their lives too.


     He ran for president almost reluctantly, coming in only after Eugene McCarthy had already announced his campaign.  But when he came in, it was like nothing anyone had seen before.  His brother had been killed riding in an open car.  Kennedy campaigned in one most days.  It took three men to hold him in the car, one of them a former football player.  People mobbed him, crawled up on to the car to touch him, grasp his hand.  He went through cufflinks the way most of go through Kleenex.  At the end of the day his hands would be scratched, bleeding.


     He never lost his sense of humor, turned often against himself.  "I asked Ethel (his wife) about a joke for the speech," he told one crowd.  "She said, 'Just let them see your hair. They'll laugh.'"   But he was serious too.  In Indianapolis, he broke the news of Martin Luther King's murder.  He said, in part, "For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and distrust at the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I can only say that I feel in my heart the same kind of feeling. I  had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man. But we have to make an effort in the United go beyond these rather difficult times."  


     He won some primaries and then he won California, the biggest, and then Sirhan Sirhan shot and killed him.


     At his funeral, his brother Edward quoted George Bernard Shaw about Bobby: "Some men see things as they are and ask why, but I dream dreams that never were and ask why not?"   The conventional wisdom was that Hubert Humphrey had enough delegates and would have been the nominee had Kennedy lived.  I never believed that.  I think commitments would have been broken and delegates would have flocked to the Kennedy banner. We'll never know, of course.


     He was the most passionate politician I can think of. He convinced millions of Americans they really could make the world a better place.  But then he died, of course, and the world went on.  In that Indianapolis speech he quoted "my favorite poet, Aeschylus...'In our sleep pain, which cannot forget, falls drop by drop upon the heart until in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.'"


      I don't forget, though it's been forty years now, and I wonder when, or whether, we'll see somebody like him. Maybe not.  

Sunday, June 1, 2008

May 31, 2008

I haven't read Scott McClellan's book yet, but I've seen so many yummy quotes that maybe I don't have to. "Waging an unnecessary war is a grave mistake," he writes. Well bleep, Scott, some of us have known that for years. He also acknowledges an "even more fundamental mistake--a decision to turn away from candor and honesty when those qualities were most needed" Well, bleep again, Scott. Lying and cheating are bad, sure, but if you ask the families of the more than 4,000 Americans and 100,000 Iraqis who died in Mr. Bush's dumb war, I'll bet they'd say the war was a more fundamental mistake than the lies. Tears and coffins and all that, you know.

McClellan writes about a "culture of deception" and that's fair enough. He also says that Washington is now the home of the "permanent campaign...a game of endless politicking based on the manipulation of shades of truth, partial truth, twisting of the truth and spin. Government has become an appendage of politics rather than the other way around." Well, bleep again, Scott. A lot of us have known that for a good while too.

The truth is, of course, that all modern administrations--I'm not old enough to remember what Lincoln's time was like--have tried to manipulate the press, to get the story reported their way. I'm old enough, as you, Scott, are not--to remember Walter Cronkite, the CBS anchor, coming back from a visit to Vietnam and announcing that that war wasn't working well. "If I've lost Cronkite," President Lyndon Johnson is supposed to have said, "I've lost middle America." And the government told lies back then too. I remember sitting in a briefing room in Saigon one day, listening to the spokesman describe "human wave" attacks on a U. S. position. I happened to have been at that position and I asked the briefer why he didn't finish the sentence, which in fact read "human wave attacks by an estimated enemy platoon." That's about thirty-five guys--pretty small waves. A lot of reporters
covering that war wore badges reading, "Ambushed at Credibility Gap."

So it isn't new, but it probably is a little worse this time. Some who favored the Vietnam War really thought they were containing Communism. We lost, of course, but the wicked Commies discovered free markets and our countries are friendly now.

I never could figure why Bush invaded Iraq. To prove he was tougher than his father by knocking off Saddam? As good a guess as any. We'll never know and I'm not sure Mr. Bush does, but I do know a truth McClellan has come to very late--the war isn't...the war wasn't worth all those dead bodies.

Bleep, Scott, why'd it take you so long to figure that out?