Monday, September 29, 2008

September 27, 2008

Who won? I think my editor, Ann Hawthorne, had it about right: you probably think the one you're for won. No big gaffes, certainly. Nobody lateraled Poland the way Gerald Ford did in 1976; nobody sighed mournfully--was he sad or just bored--the way Al Gore did in 2000. And each candidate got in some good licks, though I think John McCain failed in his effort to make Barack Obama seem like an immature teenager.

So, onward. I'm personally looking forward to the vice presidential candidates exchange, due this coming week. I mean, we have one candidate, in Sarah Palin, who cites the fact that you can see Russia from parts of Alaska as somehow enhancing her foreign policy credentials. " Well, it certainly does," Palin told CBS's Katie Couric. "because our next door neighbors are foreign countries, there in the state that I am the executive of."

Well, maybe. But many years ago, when I was a draftee soldier, the U.S. Army send me to St.Lawrence, an island in the Bering Strait about half way between Nome and Siberia. We could see Siberia on clear days, and there were two or three of those that winter, but none of s thought we learned anything neew about the Soviet Union by staring at it. What we mostly did was tape record radio messages and worry about keeping our feet warm.

Ms. Palin's rival, Sen. Joseph Biden, has been to Russia, of course, and when you visit a place you do learn something about it. Not anything very vice presidential, maybe, but did you like the food, are the people friendly, stuff like that. I liked the people when I was there, though the government, back when the pace was the USSR, was less obliging.

Anyway, the two of them should be fun. You never know what she'll say, and I still remember him, at one very boring Senate hearing, pausing maybe eight minutes into his ten-minute turm to ask questions--he hadn't asked one yet--and suddenly saying, thoughtfully, "Of course, I have no idea what I'm talking about."

So I have high hopes for the VP showdown.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

September 25, 2008

     "Houston, we have liftoff."  That's a phrase we just don't hear much anymore.  And I wonder whether anyone cares.
     Once upon a time, Americans were excited about space.  When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin made the first moon landing in 1969, CBS News, for which I then worked, was on the air the whole time that they stayed on the moon--a little more than a day, as I recall.  Hard to imagine anything like that now.
     The Washington Post ran a special section today to remind us that NASA--the National Aeronautics and Space Administration--will be fifty years old next month.  And it still has projects--there are pictures of a new crew capsule, the Orion, of the Altair Lunar Lander which is supposed to put four astronauts on the moon for a week, of the Ares rocket which is supposed to take them there, and so on.
     But the truth is that the space shuttle will be retired shortly.  For a time the U.S. will have no way of reaching the international space station except by hitching a ride with the Russians or maybe the Chinese, who are interested in space and have big plans to be out there. 
     This country?  We're in two wars;  we have poverty and hunger and home;  we have all sorts of earthly problems we haven't solved.  Space?  Why?  "To boldly go where no man...,"  may be the most famous split infinitive in the history of television, but Star Trek was a long time ago--Lt. Sulu just turned seventy--and if the captain beckoned now, who would go?
     I hope I'm wrong.  I'd like to think of man, not just remote-controlled landers, on Mars or amongst the moons of Jupiter or the rings of Saturn.  I'd like to think that but it's just very hard to imagine Americans making those journeys, given all the stuff we need to deal with at home.
     I hope I'm wrong.  What do you think?   

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Tuesday, September 23, 2008

September 23, 2008

I've never identified with John McCain--I mean, I was never a pilot, nor a prisoner, nor a hero--until the other day when he said he always had trouble with economics, or words to that effect. Senator, I'm with you.

What seems to have happened, as best this amateur can tell, is that a lot of institutions--government, investment banks, and so on--made a lot of bad loans to people who thought they could afford to buy a house and then found out they couldn't. So now, foreclosures, and some sort of government bailout program so that the institutions that made these bad loans don't collapse, leaving the rest of us outside the bank asking plaintively, "Where's our money?"

Some intervention is obviously needed. It would be good, I think, if it weren't just a government to the rescue bailout. If the government is going to buy bad notes, let's hope there's some mechanism so that when the economy gets better, and the bad notes' value increases, the government can sell them at a profit and the taxpayers will see some recovery, get some money back in tax cuts, or whatever.

We've gotten used to a government that's in debt, saddled with one ridiculously expensive bummer, the war in Iraq. Now we have two.

The presidential candidates have their first debate this week--Friday--and I hope they get asked not only how we got into this mess, but how we get out of it--where the hell we go from here.

Gotta go now; time to call my bank.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

While his "editor" is away for a few days, Mr. Morton will be gathering his thoughts for when the column returns next week...unless, of course, he is moved to write something today.

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September 17, 2008

     I was going to wait until they clinched, but the editor may be away then, so here goes.  What the heck, they're leading their division by nine games with only about a dozen left to play.  So, the Chicago Cubs will be in the playoffs.
     Doesn't mean anything.  They were there last year and lost.  There in 2003 and lost.  Maybe the hitting is a little better this year and, yes, their ace, Carlos Zambrano, did pitch a no-hitter the other day.  But hey, these are the Cubs were talking about.
    I mean, the last time they won the pennant was in 1945, 63 years ago.  The last time they won the World Series?  A century ago, 1908.  Must be the longest losing streak any time, anywhere. So we know they're not going to win, don't we?  Wrigley Field might fall down if they won.
     Still, if you're a Cubs fan, your heart races just a little.  You find yourself thinking, well, maybe this year is different, maybe....
     I know how to sum this all up.  It's a line from the Village Voice back when it was new, in the 1950s.  There was someone, I don't remember who, who wrote short nifty essays.  One week he was writing about this terrific woman he'd met, just like this other terrific woman with whom he had just concluded a miserable, unhappy affair.  Looking ahead to the new woman, the new affair, he wrote, "Oh man, I dig the pain ahead."
     Could have been a Cub fan.  

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Tuesday, September 16, 2008

September 16, 2008

The Dow Jones Industrial average loses over 500 points--about 4.4 % of its value--in a day. Stocks tumble, Merrill Lynch merges, Lehman disappears.  We're in economic trouble.  What would the candidates do?
     They're fairly typical of their parties.  John McCain, the Republican, basically believes in markets and in keeping government out of them.  'I'm always for less regulation,' he told the Wall Street Journal last March.  In 1995, after the Republicans won control of Congress, he proposed a moratorium on all federal regulations.  Yesterday he called for 'major reform' in the existing system of regulation and to 'bring transparency and accountability' to Wall Street.  His running mate, Governor Sarah Palin, quoted Ronald Reagan the other day saying 'government isn't always the answer. In fact, too often government is the problem.'
     Barack Obama, the Democrat, generally follows his party.  He's called for regulating investment and mortgage brokers the way commercial banks are.  And he'd set up a government commission to monitor threats to the financial system and report to the President and Congress.  Oddly enough, the New York Times reports that Obama has raised more Wall Street money than McCain by about three million dollars, quoting the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics.  Maybe the Street wants more government?  Hard to imagine.
     Anyway, the campaign now has a real issue to debate.  No more talk about whether hockey moms wear lipstick, whether McCain is reckless or Obama effete.  We have real problems these days and we should encourage the candidates to speak to them.              

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Monday, September 15, 2008

September 15, 2005

     The Washington Post has been running excerpts this week of a book called "Angler: the Cheney Vice Presidency" by Barton Gellman.  It will be published tomorrow.  The book makes clear what to me has always been the scariest thing about George W. Bush's presidency:  the belief that in wartime the president's powers are absolute, unlimited.
     The issue was a program for warrantless surveillance of U.S. citizens.  A number of administration officials, including Attorney General John Ashcroft and James Comey, his deputy, thought the program was illegal and were refusing to certify it.
     The judge in charge of the special surveillance program, Royce Lambeth, is quoted as saying, "We could have gone to Congress, hat in hand, the judicial branch and the executive together and gotten any statutory change we wanted in those days I felt like.  But they wanted to demonstrate that the president's power was absolute."
     In the end, Bush made some minor changes in the program and Justice Department officials who were ready to resign, including Comey, didn't.  But now, in this election season, that of course isn't the point.
     The point is that someone, in the first of the upcoming presidential debates, should ask Senators McCain and Obama where they stand on this.  Personally, I would vote against anyone who believed in an all-powerful president in time of war.  The men who wrote the Constitution had experienced a king and rebelled against him;  they didn't want another one.   And the Constitution itself very carefully spells out the different branches of government.  Article I begins "All legislative powers herein granted shall be vested in Congress..." and so on.  Article II spells out the powers of the president, and they are limited.  Congress, for instance, is supposed to declare war, though we've certainly gotten away from that lately.
     Anyway, Mr. Cheney is wrong, in my view;  the president is not all-powerful.  Let's find out what the new guys think.   

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Thursday, September 11, 2008

September 11, 2008

     It's been seven years.  Are we winning the war on terror?  Losing?  Who knows?
     We're not losing.  We have played successful defense;  there has not been another successful attack like the one that brought down the Towers.  No one has set off a small nuclear bomb in Kansas.  But we don't seem to be winning either.  Life for the terrorists may be harder, supplies more limited.  But we haven't found Osama bin Laden.  While Al Qaeda has taken some hits in places like Iraq, I'm sure it still survives.
     The papers report today that Mr. Bush has a new tactic--going after terrorists on the ground in other peoples' countries without giving those countries--Pakistan mainly--any advance notice.  Just walk in and shoot 'em up.  That will surely make us many new friends and allies.
     In fact winning, as opposed to not losing, will almost certainly be a challenge for the next president--a challenge not simply in military terms.  He will need to convince Muslims and Muslim governments that the United States does not regard Islam or the countries where it rules, as necessarily hostile.  There is nothing in the religion, as far as I know, that requires Muslims to wage holy war.  They sometimes do and so, of course, do Christians, but it's not required.
     What the next president will understand, I hope, is that we live in a diverse world, that not all countries will admire the American way, but that we don't have to fight the ones who don't like us, and they don't have to fight us.  Talking to their leaders, which Obama has said he'd do, is something he's been attacked for but it's hard to see why.  Beats bombing as an approach, you'd think.
    So let's hope that we accept diversity and that we can live with different cultures in peace and they with us.  It's not the Bush way, but it might be Obama's or McCain's. 

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Wednesday, September 10, 2008

September 10, 2008

     If Barack Obama's campaign were a car, he could have it towed to a garage and jump started there.  It seems to have stalled lately.  I'm not sure why, but the excitement he stirred during the primaries seems to have disappeared.  His acceptance speech was ordinary;  can you remember a single line from it?  Neither can I. 
     And, of course, the excitement these days is all about the fabulous Sarah.  But the campaign has a way to go yet, and her car too may stall before it's over.
     Governor Palin has brought John McCain's campaign to life--and of course she is pro-life--but she's been successful partly because she has so far refused to answer questions.  And there are some holes in her resume.  She says, in her standard speech, that she was against the Bridge to Nowhere.  But in fact she was for it before she was against it.  She attacks earmarks--those little goodies Congress sticks in bills--but in fact she was brilliantly successful at getting them for her home town and her state.
     She wants creationism and evolution both taught in the schools.  But one is religious doctrine and the other is science.
     She fought with the librarian in Wasilla because the librarian would not remove some books from the library that Palin disapproved of.
     Her church supports a program which aims at converting homosexuals into heterosexuals through the power of prayer.  Does Palin agree with this?  Would she volunteer to take part?
     You can argue for or against all these positions, but on balance she seems to be a whole lot more of a social conservative than the average voter.  And the voters will probably figure that out before November.  I can see her rallying the conservatives who were worried about McCain.  But independent women?  Democratic women?  I doubt that very much.       
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September 10, 2008

     Been wondering what the campaign's about?  Now we know.  It's about lipstick.
     Sarah Palin was first, I think, when she said the difference between a pit bull and a hockey mom like her was "lipstick."   Then Barack Obama used it comparing Republican nominee John McCain's policies to Republican incumbent George Bush's. "You can put lipstick on a pig," Obama said, "It's still a pig.  You can wrap an old fish in a piece of paper called change.  It's still going to stink after eight years."
     The GOP, of course, promptly accused Obama of "offensive and disgraceful" comments and demanded an apology.  Hunh?  McCain himself, once upon a time, used lipstick as a metaphor when attacking Hillary Clinton's health plan.  It's a little like the old Abbott and Costello routine, "Who's on first?"
     Obama, of course, wasn't attacking Palin;  he was accusing McCain of tarting up old Bush policies to make them look new instead of tired and failed.  But truth is always the first casualty in a war, and presidential politics is a war, of sorts.
     It's not exactly new, anyway.  Wasn't it Jimmy Carter, years ago, who talked about how you could put "diamonds on a hog" but it was still a hog.
     Okay, diamonds one year, lipstick this year.  It's cheaper;  the pig won't mind;  and, hey, it sure beats facts and issues, don't you think?

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Sunday, September 7, 2008

September 7, 2008

Dear Governor Palin:
      We all know by now that you can kill, dress and cook a moose.  But Washington's not Alaska;  it poses different challenges.  Could you, I wonder, kill, dress and cook a lobbyist?  Lots of them here.  Very few moose.
     Lots of different stuff here to confront if you win.  Alaska's a big place with few people.  Privacy is something that's pretty easy to find, I expect.  Not here.  You'll be surrounded--lobbyists, favor-seekers, hangers-on--the whole DC schmear.  How to deal with the crush?  I think you should bring your sled dogs--I'm sure you have some--with you.  One way to achieve privacy would be to turn the dogs loose on the maddening crowd.  The Secret Service can help with that too, of course, but the dogs could be more partisan--take a bite out of anyone you want to chase away.
     The dogs could help keep those pesky reporters at arm's length too.  Not many of them will want to end up as canine chow.
     Most of the mob--lobbyists, favor-seekers, reporters--will try to tell you they're your friends. Don't believe them.  Lying is one of the things folks here are really good at.  And friendship?  Harry Truman--I know he was a Democrat but he knew this town pretty well--said once,  "If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog."  So there you are, the sled dogs again.
     Mind you, Governor, it's not all bad.  The monuments are lovely, especially at night.  There's a lot of good art in the museums.  And while your official job is presiding over the Senate, there's a long-standing tradition that says you really don't have to do it very often and you don't have to listen when you do;  the Parliamentarian will tell you anything you need to know.
     And one thing that, as an Alaska, you'll love.  You get to watch this city try to cope with snow! After two or three flakes fall, people start abandoning their cars, schools close, citizens tremble--the whole ball of wax.  You'll laugh for a week and by then, if only a couple of inches fell, they'll have most of it cleaned up.
     Good luck.

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Thursday, September 4, 2008


    Governor Sarah Palin delivers one heck of a speech;  we all know that now.  But I was struck by another speech, one she made to ministry students at her former church in Wasilla, the School of Ministry at the Wasilla Assembly of God church.
     Speaking of the war in Iraq, to which her eldest son is expected to be sent, she said  'Our national leaders are sending them (the troops) out on a task that is from God.'   In an earlier speech, she urged students to pray for the construction of a $30 billion natural gas pipeline in the state, calling it 'God's will.'
     It must be comforting to worship a God you know so well that you are certain of what His wishes are, but I wonder.  Some wars are inevitable, of course.  I remember Bill Mauldin, the World War II cartoonist whose Willie and Joe were the best known soldiers in that war, saying once that he didn't think the war had made the world better or kinder but 'of course we had to kill Hitler.'  Of course we did;  he was a huge and evil figure.   But did we have to invade Iraq?  Saddam Hussein was a bad man, too, but not a threat to the whole world the way Hitler was.
     We have now lost more than 4,000 American lives in that war;  many more Iraqis have died.  Is Iraq better or safer than it was?  Are we better off than before we invaded?  Honest people can disagree about the answers to those questions, but they are not obvious.
     I don't know where God (if he exists) stands on the war or on the proposed pipeline.  But when it comes to choosing leaders who will decide these hard questions, I'm for people who see shades of gray not just black and white.  These issues are not easy.  I would much rather vote for people who see the grays, who see the nuances, the difficulties these issues pose than for someone who confidently says, this is God's will.     

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Tuesday, September 2, 2008

September 2, 2008

     Nothing new under the sun?  Hah!  Never had a VP candidate with an unmarried pregnant daughter, have we?
     Does it make any difference?  I doubt it.  In a logical world, Bristol Palin's pregnancy might make her mother, the candidate, rethink her position that abstinence is the only kind of sex education worth teaching.  It obviously didn't work for Bristol.  If she'd insisted the guy use a condom, all their lives would be a lot less stressful than they now are.   But it's not a logical world and politicians hate to let facts get in the way of a strongly held viewpoint.  Mrs. Palin is probably not an exception to that rule.
    Does her nomination really change the race much?  I doubt that too.  Putting Geraldine Ferraro on his ticket didn't do much for Walter Mondale.  Ferraro was smart, attractive, and all that, but people really wanted to reelect Ronald Reagan and they did.  Mrs. Palin is clearly an attractive, intelligent conservative.  That may help John McCain by reassuring conservatives who've been worrying whether he's orthodox enough.  But those people were never going to vote for Barack Obama;  it was McCain or a day spent quietly at home.
     The notion that Palin will bring over women disappointed that Hillary Clinton didn't get the Democratic nomination seems simply bizarre.  Clinton and Palin disagree on just about all the issues there are.  The notion that women will abandon their position on issues and vote simply on gender makes zero sense.
      The vice presidential debate will be interesting.  Joe Biden will have to be very careful not to come across as a bully.  I remember Ferraro bristling at a questioner during some TV appearance when she ran:  "Just because I'm a woman don't think you can..."  Well, it went something like that.  That's the kind of thing that could drive women to the GOP.  But Biden is an old campaigner and presumably will have thought of that.
     So I don't think Palin will change the race.  But the charm of this process is, of course, that you never know.  So, let the game begin!   

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Monday, September 1, 2008

August 31, 2008

     Well, it wasn't Joe Lieberman, and maybe that's too bad.  He is supposed to speak to the Republicans this week, and I'll be interested in what he has to say.
     Lieberman, of course, began life as a Democrat, was elected to the Senate as one, ran for Vice President with Al Gore in 2000 as one.  That changed in 2006 when Connecticut Democrats denied him the party's renomination to the Senate.  Lieberman, undeterred, ran as an independent and won.  He now gets denounced by radio ranters at both ends of the spectrum, and that seems to bother him not at all.
     I don't know very much about John McCain's real running mate, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, but her selection seems meant to reassure the party's conservatives, who have doubts about McCain, the reputed maverick.  Palin is more orthodox--anti-abortion, pro-gun, and so on.
     The trouble is, if you are as fed up with Washington politics as I've become over the last twenty years, you want more mavericks, not fewer ones.  So much of what goes on here is knee-jerk, party line nonsense.  That hasn't always been true.  When I first came here in the 1950s, the Senate was full of thoughtful people--Democrats like Mike Mansfield of Montana, Paul Douglas of Illinois;  Republicans like Jacob Javits of New York, Everett Dirksen of Illinois.  Those senators could argue and debate, seriously, about what was good for the country and when they'd reached agreement they could cross party lines and pass laws that worked--the Civil Rights Act, for one, the Voting Rights Act for another.  Some losers too, of course, the Gulf of Tonkin resolution.  But hey, stuff happened.
     Lieberman is somewhat in that mold--interested in issues, in ideas.  So maybe it's just as well he's staying in the Senate.  He can show the new guys how it used to work.   

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