Wednesday, May 28, 2008

May 28, 2008

More bad news for Hillary Clinton. She'd been hoping to get all the delegates from Michigan and Floida, but party lawyers say its Rules and Bylaws committee, whch is meeting on the issue this Saturday, can't legally seat more than half of them.

The party originally penalized the two states for holding their primaries earlier than party rules allowed and said no delegates from the two would be seated at the convention. Obviously, the party wants the two states there somehow--it is a national party and they are big states--but the question has been how. Clinton "won" both primaries; in fact, Obama wasn't even on the ballot in Michigan; he had his name taken off when the party asked candidates not to campaign in the states. Clinton's name stayed on, and so of course she "won." But it seems a little much to award her all the delegates, given that history.

But Clinton fights on. She drew criticism--unfair, I think--for mentioning Robert Kennedy's 1968 campaign by way of saying that her campaign is not unusually long. Lots of intelligent people--including the editor of this column--thought she was somehow raising the memory of Kennedy's assassination as something that might happen again, to Obama. I didn't read it that way, but many did. She might instead have recalled Edward Kennedy's race against President Jimmy Carter in 1980. That went on into the convention itself. I remember placards "Free the Carter 2000," in reference to delegates pledged to Carter. They weren't freed, of course, and he was renominated, only to lose to Ronald Reagan.

And of course Clinton has every right to hang in there this time. Obama may have some awful secret that comes out before the convention. It's unlikely, of course, but you never know. Donna Rice appeared out of nowhere and ended Gary Hart's 1988 campaign. Weird things can happen.

So hang in there as long as you want to, ma'am. Hope springs eternal, as they say.

Monday, May 26, 2008

May 26, 2008

Memorial Day is, of course, a time to think about those who die in our country's wars, but it's worth thinking about the veterans who survive them, too.

America did that most successfully at the end of World War II when Congress passed the GI Bill of Rights. Thousands of returning vets who could never have afforded college suddenly could. I went to college starting in 1948 and the campuses were still crowded with vets. The Bill paid full tuition and a living allowance. It did other things too--vets bought houses under liberal mortgage plans funded by the bill, and so on. It was a piece of social legislation which, in fact, transformed the country.

WW II was a war we had to fight, of course. The Japanese attacked us and, as Bill Mauldin, the cartoonist whose Willie and Joe were the best known soldiers of the war, once told me, "We had to kill Hitler." I agree. Now we are fighting in Iraq, a war I've never thought we needed to have. I have absolutely no idea why President Bush invaded Iraq and I'm not sure he does either

But vets are coming home from that war, now in its sixth year, longer than WWII, and Congress is considering a new GI Bill. Its Senate sponsors are two Vietnam vets, Jim Webb of Virginia and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska. It would do pretty much what the WW II Bill did, pay full tuition and other expenses at a public university for veterans who have served in the military for at least three years since 9/11.

The President? He's against it on the grounds that, according to the New York Times, it "is too generous and may discourage reenlistment...." Well, Mr. President, so what? These veterans volunteered in wartime, knowing that they risked their lives. You, sir, don't hesitate to ask more and more billions to continue the war you started, so why not some benefits for the people who've had to fight it?

The House and Senate have passed slightly different versions of the bill, but both by margins large enough to override a presidential veto. So, its chances are good. Happy Memorial Day, Mr. President.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

May 21, 2008

     John and Robert Kennedy, it always seemed to me, were restless in the Senate.  Sure, you could vote and make speeches and affect legislation.  They both, I thought, wanted to be in charge of something so they ran for president.  One made it;  the other was murdered trying.


     Edward Kennedy, the youngest brother, took over John's seat as soon as he was old enough--thirty.  A family friend kept it warm during the wait.  Ted Kennedy was elected in 1962 and he's been there ever since, longer than anyone except Robert Byrd of West Virginia who was probably standing there waiting when they first brought the desks into the Chamber.


     And the youngest Kennedy likes the Senate.  I mean, you'd have to, to stay there that long.  He likes it and he's been good at it--always an excellent staff, had an influence on a lot of legislation.  John McCain said, on learning of Kennedy's brain tumor diagnosis, "I have described Ted Kennedy as the last lion in the Senate...because he remains the single most effective member...if you want to get results."  He is a liberal, of course, a spokesman for liberal causes, but one who was always willing to work with Republicans to achieve a common goal.


     A very effective senator, and, when he ran in 1980, a very ineffective presidential candidate.  I think he only did it because it was what the Kennedy men did.  When CBS's Roger Mudd asked him on camera why he wanted to be president, the answer was, to put it kindly, hard to understand.  Something about natural resources, I remember that.


     I don't think we've ever had a political dynasty quite like the Kennedys.  Sure there have  been other families--several Roosevelts were in politics one way or another.  But none of them turned into rock stars. The Kennedys did, whether it was Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis telling Theodore White about Camelot, or Robert Kennedy in 1968 breaking the news of Dr. Martin Luther King's assassination to a mostly black campaign crowd:  "I too had a bother who was killed by a white man," or whatever your favorite memory of the brothers is.


     We've been lucky, I think, to have had them around all these years.   




Tuesday, May 20, 2008

May 19, 2008

     Back in 1956, Egypt's then president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, announced he was nationalizing the Suez Canal.  Britain, France and Israel thought that was a very bad idea and sent troops to prevent the Egyptians from seizing the Canal.  The President of the United States, Dwight Eisenhower, thought that was a very bad idea and told them, without sending a single soldier, to stop it.  Britain, France, and Israel stopped and withdrew their troops.


     That was then, a time when the U.S. had real clout in the world.  This is now.  President Bush, on his Middle Eastern trip, urged the Arab countries to adopt democracy and women's rights.  "Too often in the Middle East," he said, "politics has consisted of one leader in power and the opposition in jail.  The time has come for nations across the Middle East to abandon these practices and treat their people with the dignity and respect they deserve."   I doubt if anyone paid any attention.


    If the Saudis, for instance, have suddenly started treating women as equals--letting them drive cars, for instance--I missed it.  Countries in the Middle East, as elsewhere, will do what they think it's in their interest to do, without asking advice from Washington.


     Israel lives and is sixty years old.  That's an achievement and the U.S. has helped it to happen.  The Palestinians do not have a country and continue to suffer.  That's a failure, but fixing it will require Israel to give up territory it won in the 1967 war and that's not likely to happen, however much the U.S. urges them to do it.


     Israel has never confirmed nor denied that it has nuclear weapons, but a lot of people, including me, think it does.  And no one can doubt that it's government will use them if the Arabs seem like they are winning a new Middle East war.


     There are just no easy fixes for this.  The U.S. can't tell other countries what to do anymore.  That time is past.      



Friday, May 16, 2008

May 16, 2008

     The campaign is getting silly.  They mostly do, of course, sooner or later.  President Bush started it this time when he said, "Some seem to believe that we should negotiate with terrorists and radicals,"  calling this "the false comfort of appeasement...discredited by history."  John McCain jumped right in, mentioning Neville Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister who tried to negotiate with Hitler and adding, "Barack Obama needs to explain why he wants to sit down and talk to the head of a government that is a state sponsor of terrorism...." and so on and so forth.
     Well, Mahmound Ahmedinejad of Iran, or whichever Taliban leader Obama might talk with, isn't Hitler.  Hitler was the head of a powerful nation with very strong military forces and he conquered whole countries.  He also killed millions of people--six million is a figure often used.  The Taliban are guerillas, probably as anti-Semitic as Hitler was but with only a fraction of his power to conquer and destroy.
     The reasons for talking to the bad guys--whichever ones you're facing--are probably two.  First, to get an idea of what kind of person he is--does this guy really seem batty enough that he'd launch an atomic bomb at Israel if he had one--and second, to figure out what he wants--is negotiation possible or is war his only solution to everything?  And maybe a third reason--to deliver, if needs be, a threat:  mess with us and we'll nuke you, pal; everyone in your country will be dead before lunchtime. 
     And sometimes, of course, negotiations actually make things better.  Richard Nixon as president opened a door to China.  Ronald Reagan negotiated actual arms reduction agreements with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.  Those, almost everyone would surely agree, were wise things to do.
     So what's wrong with talking?  If it doesn't work, we can always start the killing later on.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

May 14th 2008

Once upon a far off time, Barack Obama won Iowa's caucuses. The state is 94% white. Yesterday, Hillary Clinton thumped Obama hard in West Virginia's primary. That state is also 94% white.

Clinton won everybody. 59% of the men, 71% of the women. 69% of the whites, and they were 95% of the vote. Obama usually wins young people, but Clinton in West Virginia carried every age group, winning 57% of those under thirty. Obama often carries better educated voters, but Clinton won 54% of the college graduates. She won every income group; she won whether you thought the most important issue was the economy, or Iraq, or health care. She won...well, you get the idea.

Maureen Dowd reports in the New York Times that more than half of West Virginia voters said they would be dissatisfied if Obama were the nominee. Obama is ahead in delegates and all that, but these results must worry Democrats because West Virginia is usually thought of as a swing state. These numbers, like earlier numbers from swing states Ohio and Pennsylvania, suggest that Obama, if he's the nominee, may have real trouble convincing working-class whites that he ought to be president.

The remaining primaries--Kentucky is next week--aren't likely to change that impression. John McCain has reason to smile this morning.

Obama isn't the nominee yet, of course, and you have to remember that the superdelegates, unlike those chosen in primaries and caucuses, aren't bound to either candidate. Sure, lots of them have announced support for him or her, but they can change their minds four times a day if they feel like it. If the West Virginia numbers make them uneasy, some of them may feel like it.

We'll probably know once the primaries end (yes, they really will end) in early June. But for now, the fat lady is still waiting for her cue.

Monday, May 12, 2008

May 12, 2008

     The U.S. Commission on Fine Arts, bless its heart, has said that a proposed statue of Martin Luther King, Jr. for a memorial on the Tidal Basin should be reworked because it is too "confrontational"  and reminiscent of the socialist realism you see in art left over from the Soviet era.  The Commission is absolutely right.
     I don't know if you've seen the picture of the statue, but it shows a tough, almost angry-looking King, arms crossed, hard-faced.  It reminded the Commission of socialist realism.  It reminded me of, say, a Chicago ward boss telling some subordinate, "Dammit, I want that done right now! Get on it!"
     King, of course, did not change America by giving orders.  He changed it with softer words, persuading most of us that racial segregation was wrong.  He led a movement which saw Congress pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, two laws which ended legal segregation and made America a better place for all of us--black, white, whatever.
     The law says that no project like the King memorial can proceed without the Commission's approval.  And so Harry Johnson, the chairman of the memorial group, said a new design will be submitted next month which includes a "softening" of Dr. King, and a different facial expression.  That's good.  The statue is twenty-eight feet tall and seems, in its current form, to glare at us.
     Many Americans knew Dr. King better than I;  I was out of the country for part of the time he was changing it. 
But I went to a march or two, a press conference or two, and had some feeling for the kind of man he was.  Non-violent, of course, and a persuader, not a barker.  That refusal to bark exasperated some of his followers at times, but in the end I think it helped him.  
     So I hope the new statue is more like the man I remember, and less like some tough guy running a ward.           

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

May 7, 2008

Maybe the fat lady has laryngitis. Anyway, she didn't sing and it ain't over, although it's a little harder to sing the Clinton victory song than it was a couple of days ago.

Barack Obama carried North Carolina comfortably, by fourteen points. Hillary Clinton carried Indiana narrowly, 51--49. Obama told a crowd in Raleigh, N.C. that he is "less than 200 delegates away" from securing the nomination. But he has very real problems, and they come down to one word: race.

Senator Clinton carried the white vote in both states among both men and women. About one in seven whites told the exit poll that race was important to them. Six in ten of them in North Carolina, eight in ten in Indiana, voted for Clinton.

And those who support one of them don't much like the other one. The poll showed that nearly two-thirds of Clinton's voters said they'd be dissatisfied with Obama as the nominee. A third of Clinton's backers said they'd vote for Republican John McCain over Obama in the fall.

And it works both ways: about 60% of Obama's voters said they'd be dissatisfied with Clinton as the nominee, and about 20% said they'd vote for McCain if she were the nominee.

What happens now? It will be hard for Clinton to catch up in delegates in the remaining primaries; there aren't that many left. She is urging that the party count the delegates elected in Michigan and Florida. They held their primaries earlier than party rules allowed and were told their delegates would not be seated at the convention. Clinton won both states; Obama wasn't even on the ballot in Michigan. The Democrats have a meeting scheduled later this month to consider what to do.

Sir Winston Churchill made a speech during the dark days of World War II in which he said, "We shall fight in the streets, we shall fight in the hills, we shall never surrender." He is supposed to have added after the mikes were off--this is such a good story it's probably not true, "We shall hit them over the head with beer bottles because that's about all we'll have left by then." So if you see Hillary striding about holding a beer bottle, it may be part of her "look like one of the guys" strategy, but she may also be looking for an Obama backer to thump.

Monday, May 5, 2008

May 5, 2008

     "The opera ain't over," the old phrase goes, "'til the fat lady sings."   Well, Senator Clinton isn't fat, of course; svelte would be closer.  She hasn't sung yet either--no reason why she should--and our long, interesting primary season wanders on.
     Tomorrow it's Indiana and North Carolina.  If Sen. Clinton loses both of those, a lot of people will say she should quit.  Maybe she will.  But she may very well not lose.  Tomorrow's vote will be our first chance to see how badly Barack Obama's former pastor, the Wrighteous Reverend Jeremiah Wright, has damaged Obama.
     Did Obama react swiftly enough, strongly enough to Wright's attacks?  A new New York Times/CBS News poll offers some hints.  In February 59% called Obama the stronger of the two Democratic candidates;  28% thought Clinton was.  In the new poll the Times reports they are "essentially tied."  On the other hand, 60% of the voters polled said they approved of the way Obama had handled the issue.  A majority thought the news media had overcovered the story.
     On the other, other hand--you can have three or four hands in politics--just 24% of the voters said they thought the Wright business would matter some or a lot to them in the fall, but 44% said it would matter some or a lot to "most people you know."  The poll, by the way, has a margin of error of plus or minus four points for all voters, six points for Democrats only--a smaller sample, of course.  And the poll showed Clinton and Obama each defeating John McCain in the fall by roughly similar margins.
     So if you're for Obama, the poll gives you some cause for worry, some cause for good cheer.  Tomorrow's vote will almost certainly tell us more.  It's worth remembering that voters are less likely to be candid with pollsters when the questions are about race than when they're about something else.
     My own hunch is that Rev. Wright, despite his essential outrageousness, probably has hurt Obama but probably not much.  We will, as they always say, see. 

Friday, May 2, 2008

May 2, 2008

     Deborah Jeane Palfrey, the "D C Madam" facing a probable four to six years in prison for running a call-girl ring here, hanged herself.  She was fifty-two.
     She had repeatedly told a journalist named Dan Moldea that she would.  "I'm not going back to jail," she told him, "I'll kill myself first."  Apparently she meant it.
     I don't know why this seems sad but it does.  Being a madam isn't an admirable profession, of course. Prostitution isn't an admirable thing, though it's been with us about forever.  And it's worth remembering that the attractive, college-educated women who worked for Palfrey were volunteers.  She wasn't kidnapping them off the street.  It's an ugly trade, but nobody forced anybody into it.  Child abusers, people who use violence, use pain against others are surely worse people than Palfrey.
     And she made a decision I think she had a right to make.  One of the Roman stoics--was it Seneca? I'm not sure--summed it up.  "We have none of us the right to complain of life," he wrote, "It holds no man against his will." 
     RIP, Ms. Palfrey.  

Thursday, May 1, 2008

May 1, 2008

     You remember the banner displayed on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln.  "Mission Accomplished," it said.  That was five years ago, and we're still not there.
     Mr. Bush's war has had bad consequences for our country's military--stretched too thin, probably incapable of responding to a new crisis somewhere, should one come along.
     And the war has had very bad consequences for America.  We have become a country that claims the right to torture prisoners, the right to hold them without letting them have lawyers, or trials, or even to know the specifics of what they're charged with.  The administration claims the right to eavesdrop on all of us, to surveil us with cameras, without getting approval from any court.      
     This administration has trashed the Constitution in those ways and others.
     "Major combat operations in Iraq have ended," President Bush said that day.  But at least 49 American troops died in Iraq last month, making it the deadliest since last September.  The White House put out a statement saying the banner should have been more specific;  the carrier had finished its tour and was headed home. "We have certainly paid a price," White House press secretary Dana Perino said, "for not being more specific on that banner."  Well, the president probably has paid a price for underestimating our enemy in a war he started for, as far as I can recall, no particular reason.  But the parents of the more than 4,000 Americans who have died in Mr.Bush's war would probably argue that the price they've paid is much, much higher.
     The administration  talked a lot back then about how Iraq was a threat to the United States.  But that never made much sense.  A U.S.-led coalition had thrown Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait after he invaded it.  He can't have been in much doubt that a rematch would have the same result.  And he wasn't a terrorist, of course, he was a dictator who wanted to stay in power.  Attack the US again?  What in the world for?
. Let's hope in November we elect someone who cares about that piece of paper the way the men who wrote it did.