Tuesday, April 29, 2008

April 29, 2008

     It is not true that the Reverend Jeremiah Wright is on the payroll of Senator Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign.  It just seems that way.
     The Rev. Wright is, to begin with, a serious man.  The reporting I've seen indicates that he and his church have done a lot of good work on Chicago's South Side.  He is controversial and he is almost certainly wrong about some things as when he claims that the U.S. is guilty of "inventing the HIV virus as a means of genocide against people of color."  The conventional wisdom is that AIDS first appeared among non-human primates in Africa and first spread to people on that continent.  
     But like any black of his age, he has experienced racism and is entitled to be angry.  This is an issue, as I've said before, on which America inches forward;  we are less racist than we were fifty years ago, but no one I  know thinks the problem is behind us.
     The problem is that, as he thunders about America's sins, he's hurting the first African-American with a serious shot at the presidency.  Rev. Wright is having the fifteen minutes we're all supposed to have in which the spotlight is on us and we're briefly famous.  My impression is, he loves every second of his fifteen minutes and would happily stay on stage a while longer.
     But of course this hurts Obama.  Polls all through this campaign have shown that Obama has a problem winning among lower-income, less-educated whites.  And the kind of one-liners Wright so loves are exactly the kind that make these whites scared or angry or both.  Obama couldn't reach those whites in Pennsylvania;  he can try again in Indiana and North Carolina next week, but his old pastor isn't helping him.  And there are limits to what Obama can do about this--he can denounce particular comments, but the Rev. is a man he's known and talked to for twenty years and he can't deny that.  Can't shoot him either--very un-Obama like.
     And who knows?  If Obama is the nominee, the Republicans may sign up the Rev. and send him on a speaking tour--TV crews, his own bus, the works.  If Rev. Wright plays his cards right, his fifteen minutes could turn into a month or two.  He has a shot at it.

Friday, April 25, 2008

April 25th, 2008

Not a column, just a note. We all tell stories about the dumb politician who....the dumb candidate that...and so on. But thanks to the hard work of the Associated Press, I think we can retire the trophy now.

The AP reported yesterday: "A congressional candidate is defending his speech to a group celebrating the anniversary of Adolph Hitler's birth, saying he appeared simply because he was asked.

"Tony Zirkle, who is seeking the Republican nomination in northern Indiana's 2nd District, stood in front of a painting of Hitler, next to people wearing swastika armbands and with a swastika flag in the background for the speech to the American National Socialist Workers Party in Chicago on Sunday.

"'I'll speak before any group that invites me,' Zirkle said Monday, 'I've spoken on an African-American radio station in Atlanta.'"

Dumbest ever? Retire the trophy? Oh, yeah. AP goes on to quote him as saying his aim isn't really to win the election. "My primary purpose is to educate and inform."

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

April 23, 2008

     She won.  She won big.  She did everything they said she had to do.  Ten points?  That's a landslide.  And what's wrong with this Obama guy anyway?  Clinton won white women, according to the exit poll;  she won white men.  Do Democrats want a candidate in the fall who can't carry those groups?
     She has no reason to quit now;  she may turn out to be the battered but triumphant nominee.  I mean, you can see the bruises, but she's grinning.  He must be starting to wonder what it takes to knock her out.  Is he tough enough to do that?  Maybe he should withdraw.  He's young.  He can always try again later.
     Is all this hurting the party?  Damn straight it is.  Only 53% of the Clinton supporters in yesterday's exit poll said that would vote for Obama in the fall if he were the nominee.  26% said they'd vote for John McCain, and 17% said they wouldn't vote.  Obama supporters were less partisan.  68% of them said they'd vote for Clinton in the fall if she were the one on the ballot.  Still, those divisions are both bad news for democrats who would like a candidate who could unify the party and lead it to victory.
     Obama faces a tough choice now.  In the closing days of the Pennsylvania campaign, he went more negative than he had before , but it didn't do him much good. Ten points is a shellacking.  Does he stay negative now?  Go more negative?  Does he have to win both Indiana and North Carolina, which vote in two weeks?  For Clinton, it's simpler--keep slugging, hit him with everything you've got, throw the kitchen sink at him, why ever not?
     I read somewhere that even if Senator Clinton gets 60% in the remaining primaries, she won't get to Denver with enough delegates to win.  That, again, is because the Democrats don't have winner take all primaries;  it's always proportional representation.  So the super delegates--the office-holders and party officials who are delegates without having to be elected--will decide the nomination.  They'd probably just as soon not--or at least not have to be seen deciding the race.  That's bad for the party's image, you know--but it does seem to be where we're headed.     


Monday, April 21, 2008

April 21, 2008

     Thank heavens!  People are going to vote again.  It's been much too long;  Mississippi was more than a month ago.  The candidates have been busy of course.  John McCain has been busy smiling;  he's won his party's nomination.  Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have been doing what candidates usually do when a race gets long and tough;  they've been getting more negative.
     That's about as surprising as the sun going down in the evening.  But it's interesting to wonder whom it might help and/or hurt.  Obama started out preaching a kind of transformational politics, and that's something he's very good at.  Sometimes he was inspiring;  his speech on race was thoughtful, maybe even profound.  The question always was, yes, but how is he in a knife fight?
     Well, here's a Pennsylvania sample:   "...her message comes down to this--we can't really change the say-anything, do-anything...special-interest-driven game in Washington, so we might as well choose a candidate who really knows how to play it....She seems to have a habit of saying whatever it is that folks want to hear."   Hmm.  Maybe he can handle a knife after all.
    We never, I think, doubted that Clinton could fight.  Obama, she said, is "so negative. He has sent out mailers, he has run ads misrepresenting what I have proposed.  I really regret that because the last thing we need is to have somebody spending as much money as he has downgrading universal healthcare."  For the record, both senators have healthcare plans, though they do disagree on the details.
      In fact they agree on most issues.  With rare exceptions, like the Vietnam War, I don't think people  vote on specific issues much anyway.  The vote on character:  Can I trust him or her?  Is the candidate honest?  Will this candidate get us into a war (maybe less relevant this year, since we're already in a couple)?  Those are the kinds of questions voters have, more than the specifics of a tax bill or a healthcare plan.
     So, does Clinton say what she thinks you want to hear, and does Obama misrepresent her, are fair questions.  Clinton's husband is a fair question.  So is Obama's former pastor though I think he's answered that one.  Politics is character driven more than issue driven.  Always has been.
     Anyway, they're voting again.  Excellent.  We need some new numbers. 


Thursday, April 17, 2008

April 15, 2008

     What did Barack Obama say? He said, "It's not surprising, then, they (working class Americans) get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them, or anti-immigrant sentiment or antitrade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."  Hillary Clinton said this was "elitist...and frankly, patronizing."  Really?
     There's no doubt factory jobs are fewer now than they used to be.  No doubt, I think, that some Americans are frustrated because of that, because it takes more education now to get ahead and because not every American can get that education.  Do those Americans turn to guns?No, I think Obama, whatever he meant, is wrong about that.  Lots of Americans own guns and like to hunt or shoot, but that's not economic.
     Do some turn to religion?  I hope so;  what on earth could be wrong with that.  Do some of them blame illegal immigrants for their woes? Sure--just remember back to the immigration debate in Congress a few months ago.  It's one of the issues that hurt John McCain, for a time.  And are there still some racists left?  Yes--not as many as there used to be, but yes.
     I don't know if any of that is elitist or patronizing.  The economy is in trouble and some working class Americans are hurting because of it.   
     What might be more elitist or patronizing was Sen. Clinton stopping in a bar to have a shot and a beer.  This is an exercise called, "watch me pretend to be just like you."  And maybe it's smart politics, but most folks, I suspect, will say, "Hunh?  She what?  She's about as likely to enjoy a shot and a beer as Dorothy would be to do a strip tease in the middle of Oz."  You can see Sen. Clinton with a glass of white wine, maybe even with a whiskey sour.but a shot and a beer?  No way.
     Oh well.  Politics is many different things and artifice plays a role no doubt.  Pennsylvania votes a week from today, and then we'll have something real to argue about. 

Monday, April 14, 2008

April 14, 2008

     The Olympic torch has had its problems this year--protests here, a secret route in San Francisco--but if no one can see it, why take if off the plane at all--and this has produced at least one call--an op ed piece by Buzz Bissinger in the New York Times--to abolish the games.
     The idea of runners bringing the torch to the site of the games wasn't part of the original Olympics. That practice started in 1936, when Adolf Hitler's Berlin hosted the games.
     But in the original Olympics--I learned about them in a fascinating book, "The Naked Olympics" by Tony Perrottet-- yes, the athletes were naked;  the trainers sometimes were too, though the judges wore official robes.  Naked runners, and boxers, and so on--you have to wonder how NBC would cope with that.
     There were some other differences too.  Crowds got to the games mostly by walking--a two day stroll from Athens--forty miles or so.  And once they got to Olympia they slept--well, the rich might have servants and tents but most fans just sacked out on the ground.  Olympia had, of course, no plumbing--no showers.  The athletes could wash but everyone else went dirty.   It gets hot in Greece in the summer, so by the second or third day, body odor was presumably common and rank.
     For religious reasons, Perrottet writes, spectators were forbidden to wear hats.  Many collapsed from heatstroke, and some died.  There were no toilets, so people used the immediate neighborhood as a bathroom.  The Romans built the first permanent toilet block, but that was in the first century A.D.and the Games had been going on for centuries by then.  Another festival of smell, presumably; something like seventy thousand people--fans, workers, and so on--would attend.
     The sports were sometimes violent.  Athletes got injured, sometime killed, in events like chariot racing and pankration--a sort of combination of wrestling and kickboxing.
     But in other ways, the old Games were like today's professional sports.  If you won, your future was assured.  "Financially speaking," Perrottet writes, "a victor was a made man."  Cash, gifts, maybe a house, all kinds of rewards.  You had to win, though--no prizes for second or third.
     Well, it was a different time but some of the same forces--money, politics--that Mr. Bissenger objects to now were present then.  I think I'd vote to let the Games begin. 


Wednesday, April 9, 2008

April 9, 2008

     "We haven't turned any corners.  We haven't seen any lights at the end of the tunnel."  General David Petraeus.
     Senator George Voinovich, R. Ohio: "The American people have had it up to here."  Petraeus: "I certainly share the frustration."
     When might troop withdrawals resume after they stop this summer?  Senator Carl Levin, D. Mich.: "Could that be a month, could that be two months?"  Petraeus:  "Sir, it could be less than that."  Levin: "Could it be more than that?"   Petraeus: "It could be more than that."
     "Petraeus: "We believe the appropriate way...to sustain and build on the progress we have made...is to make reductions when conditions allow you to do that...."   Senator Evan Bayh, D. Ind.: "And we don't know when that point will be?"  Petraeus: "Senator, when the conditions are met is when that point is."
     Petraeus: "We have the forces that we need right now, I believe.  We've got to continue.  We've got our teeth into the jugular and we need to keep it there."
     Sen. Chuck Hagel, R. Neb. "Where do we go from here?"  Sen. Bob Corker, R. Tenn.: "I think people want a sense of what the end is going to look like."
     But that, of course, is exactly what they didn't get at the end of the big hearings.  General Petraeus' position, apparently, is that we are there for the foreseeable future, until Iraq changes in some way he didn't spell out. 
     Does anyone remember why we invaded in the first place?  Does anyone know what victory would look like?  Does Iraq have to turn into a democracy, something it's never been?  The most realistic scenario is that we are stuck there for the rest of George Bush's presidency and that it will be up to whoever succeeds him to decide whether to stay or go after that.  Casualties, of course, will continue in the meantime. 

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

April 8, 2008

     A tiny group has just experienced tiny growth.  I wrote in this column a while ago that when John McCain considers who his running-mate should be, Condoleezza Rice should be on the list.  A couple of friends e-mailed that they agreed, but boy, were we ever not a movement.
     Now, Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson has joined the small club.  He's careful to point out that it "probably won't happen" but, still, every little bit helps.  McCain himself was noncommittal when asked about Rice on the ticket:  "I think she's a great American," he said, which of course does not tell us whether she'd be a great VP.  She would face the challenge of having served in the Bush administration, which is widely regarded as a flop.  Still, she would bring youth, smarts and glamour to the ticket and those ought to be worth something. 
     She might do one other thing, and that's eliminate race as a campaign issue.  If the Democrats nominate Barack Obama, and the experts seem to think they will, then there'd be a black on each ticket.  What's a racist voter to do?  Another Washington Post columnist, Richard Cohen, notes that Obama carries the white vote in states where there aren't many blacks--Wisconsin and Vermont--but not in states with substantial black populations--Ohio and New Jersey, for example.
    It's worth noting that race is something about which voters will lie to pollsters.  Nobody, or just about nobody, wants to tell the man on the phone, "Sure, I can't stand blacks" or whites or whomever.  But if the Dems pick Obama and the Republicans Rice, racists will have to go Libertarian, or Vegetarian, or whatever.  It would be a nice choice for them.
     Sure, it probably won't happen.  But this has been an unusual year.  Who'd have guessed, a year ago, that the Republicans would pick a septuagenarian whom many strict conservatives dislike?   Or that the Democratic contest would be between a women and a black?  It's been good fun so far.  Let's hope we stay lucky. 

Friday, April 4, 2008

April 4, 2008

     We're feeling grumpy.  81% of the respondents in a new CBS News--New York Times poll say the country is headed in the wrong direction, up from 69% a year ago and 35% in 2002.  It's the highest number since the poll began asking that question back in the 1990s.  And the discontent is widespread--men and women, Republicans and Democrats, rural and urban residents, college graduates and non--all say we're going astray.
     It's hard to blame them.  Most worry about the economy.  It's easy to find signs that we are in a recession and may not get out for a while.  Some in the polls worry most about the war;  there's plenty of bad news there, too.  Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki's much publicized offensive against Moktada al-Sadr's Mahdi militia in Basra seems to have fizzled.  The New York Times reports today that more than a thousand of Maliki's soldiers refused to fight or simply ran away during the attack last week.  Just what we needed, of course.
     And we've made only slow progress in another area--race.  Martin Luther King was killed forty years ago today.  You have to acknowledge a lot hasn't changed--many residential neighborhoods, and therefore many public schools, are still largely segregated.  So are most churches.  Some changes, sure.  Forty years ago when I moved into the Washington, D.C., neighborhood where I live, most of the blacks who lived in it were poor.  Most who live in it now are middle class.  More blacks have good jobs now, more go to college.  It's slow, but it's real.
     The thing that makes me gloomiest about America is what this president has done to it.  It's okay, by Mr. Bush's lights, to invade countries we don't like, to torture people we think might be terrorists, to hold suspects in secret prisons without ever charging them with anything or putting them on trial.  That is not the America I grew up in.  I cannot imagine presidents like Dwight Eisenhower or Harry Truman approving of any of that, and the sooner we get rid of this president and replace him with someone whose views are more traditionally American, the better off we'll be.
     81% think we're on the wrong course?  Good.  Proves they're paying attention.  

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

April 2, 2008

     The New York Times notes (I seem to be using this feature a lot this week) that on this day in 1917, Woodrow Wilson asked Congress to declare war on Germany and "make the world safe for democracy."  Well, we had the war, and the Germans surrendered--but make the world safe for democracy?  Not hardly.
     I don't know if that's even possible nowadays.  Maybe the last century was the American Century, but this one seems unlikely to belong to any one power, or superpower.  We seem be heading into a time when various regional powers will exist--Russia, India, China, maybe Iran--and hopefully they'll get along without blowing each other up.
     How many of those powers will be democracies?  Good question.  Russia seemed headed that way for a while, but not lately.  China seems to be experimenting with considerable economic freedom for its people, but not political freedom.  Iran?  Anybody's guess.
     And does all the world want democracy?  Another good question.  If you grow up in a rigidly structured theocracy like, say, Saudi Arabia, do you yearn for American-style democracy?  Maybe not.  Do the women yearn for drivers' licenses and equality?  Maybe, maybe not.  Democracy is not, I think, one size fits all.
     What we can do is try to make the world safe for whatever system the various countries choose.  And that means talking to one another--becoming polite acquaintances if not friends.  Barack Obama has been criticized for saying he'd talk with the leaders of countries, like Iran, which aren't our best friends.  But why be critical?  Talking is surely better than showing off our missiles or, worse yet, using them.
     Winston Churchill said a lot of good things over his long life.  One of my favorites has always been, "Jaw jaw is better than war war."

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

April 1, 2008

     The New York Times reminds us that this is the date on which the United Sates invaded Okinawa back during World War Two.  And Richard Cohen writes in the Washington Post today about a pacifist, Nicholson Baker, who has written a book arguing that no, it  wasn't a good war after all.
     Cohen thinks it was, and so do I.  I'm not a pacifist.  I thought Korea was a marginal war;  I thought Vietnam was a mistake.  We said we were containing Communism, but the Communists won and discovered that Marxism didn't work.  The last time I was there they were entertaining American tourists, some of them veterans revisiting the places where they'd fought.
     And Iraq was a mistake, of course.  Saddam Hussein was a bad man--bad to his own people--but he was not remotely a threat to the United States.
     But World War II?  I always remember an interview I did on some anniversary years ago with Bill Mauldin, the GI cartoonist whose soldiers, Willie and Joe, were probably the most famous soldiers in the European war.  Mauldin talked about how, years later, he didn't think WW II had made the world a better place.  People weren't kinder; poverty and violence hadn't vanished;  things were much as they had always been.  Then he paused for a couple of seconds and added, "But of course we had to kill Hitler."  And of course we did;  his was evil in a much more pervasive way than Saddam, spreading his hatred from country to country until no part of the world was safe.  He had to be stopped.
     In a sense it's harder to justify wars now because they can, in this nuclear age, be so total.  "For the first time," a Roman Catholic cardinal named Joseph Bernardin said some years ago, "man has the capacity to destroy God's created order."  And of course that's true.
     But I still think there are times when a country has to fight.  This mess of Mr. Bush's just isn't one of those times.