Friday, November 28, 2008

November 28, 2008

     Presidential candidates talked a lot during the campaign about being experienced, ready to take charge "on day one."  But as we are being reminded these days, our system doesn't work that way.  Inauguration Day comes more than two months after the election.  Barack Obama can talk about how he's going to fix the economy, but he can't do anything until January 20th.
     Most parliamentary systems work differently.  In Britain, if the ruling Labour Party were to lose a vote of confidence, the opposition Conservatives would have a chance to form a government.  If they had the votes, they'd be in charge right away.  If they had to bargain with the third party Liberals, it might take longer but it would still be pretty quick.
     Do we lose things by our long delay?  Well, not if the country is peaceful and prosperous, but this year, yes, we probably do.  Obama's made a lot of proposals for how he'd fix the economy, has appointed an economic team of heavy hitters, but right now they're powerless.  Power is almost two months off.
     President Bush wants to fix the economy too, of course, but he has less power as his time in office wanes.  The Democrats gained seats in both the House and Senate and are likely to say, let's wait and give Barack a chance.   
     Will all this many any actual difference?  I have no idea.  I am not sure exactly how we got so deeply into this mess--dumb loans, sure, but is that all?  And I certainly don't claim to now how to make things better.  Economics was never my best subject in school.
     Obama sounds as if he just might know.  But we'll have to wait until January to find out.  

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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

November 25, 2008

     The economy is a mess;  that's the bad news.  The president-elect gets that, and seems to know what to do about it. That's the good news.

     The key to a sound economy is jobs.   And there was Obama this past weekend outlining his plan: "It will be a two-year, nationwide effort to jump start job creation in America...We'll put people back to work rebuilding our crumbling roads and bridges, modernizing schools that are failing our children, building wind farms and solar panels...."  See?  He gets it.
    We have a lot of old infrastructure stuff in this country.  Most governments in industrial countries spend serious money modernizing the infrastructure.  We don't and it shows.  As Bob Herbert points out in the New York Times, you have to spend this money wisely, not simply build bridges to nowhere of the kind Congress so loves.  But there's no reason we couldn't do that if we tried;  we just haven't tried lately.
     One of the odd failings of the Bush administration is this failing.  You'd think conservatives wanted small government and less federal spending, sure.  But Bush has managed to spend more, to send the national debt to record highs, and ignore the things that need doing at home.
     Maybe the new guy will do better.  Maybe we can cut back on foolish expenditures like the war in Iraq and spend some of that money on all these things that need doing at home--and building prosperity by paying American workers good money to do them.
    Maybe it won't happen, of course.  But the new guy does seem to know what needs doing.  That's progress all by itself. 

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Friday, November 21, 2008

November 21, 2008

     My dictionary defines arrogance as a feeling of superiority, manifested by an overbearing manner.  We've had some synonyms for arrogance in Washington this week.  Richard Wagoner is a synonym for arrogance.  So are Robert Nardelli and Alan Mulally.  These three clowns, or titans of industry if you prefer, are the chief executives of General Motors, Chrysler and Ford.
     They are synonyms for arrogance because, when they came to town this week to beg Congress for money--different from the guy on the street with a tin cup only in that they wanted more--they arrived, each of them, in his company's corporate jet.  Can you believe that?
     I mean, they could have shared a jet.  They could, come to that, have shared a car, except that there chauffeurs may have had the day off.  Corporate jets for beggars!  What will we think of next?  Corporate jets for chimpanzees, maybe.  Why ever not?
    Congress didn't give the beggars any money this week.  It almost surely will eventually, not because their argument has merit--what can they say except that they failed to make cars that enough Americans wanted to buy--but because so many Americans work in the auto plants that cutting them lose would be very hard medicine for an economy already in trouble.
     But I have one suggestion--any of our tax money that Congress gives the auto companies should be given only on the condition that these three captains of industry are fired.  They won't go hungry;  they are all paid eight figure salaries--twenty, thirty million a year--and they must have put a few bucks by for a rainy day.
     One other suggestion--don't let them teach anything like business administration;  they clearly haven't a clue.  Maybe they could be parking lot attendants, something like that   And please, make the companies sell off the jets--that's a little of your and my tax charity for these bozos that could be saved. 

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Wednesday, November 19, 2008

November 19, 2008

     Ted Stevens is leaving the Senate.  Joe Lieberman is staying.  Different men, different lives.
     Stevens served in the Senate for forty years, longer than any other Republican.  He was an Alaska institution, mostly because he got so many goodies for his state.  He lost his election this time, mainly, I suppose, because just before the vote he was convicted on felony charges of lying on federal forms about gifts and home renovations he'd received.
     He routinely brought home billions in earmarks--9 billion in 2006 alone, according to one estimate.  But the felony conviction hurt, and he's out now--the close election called just this week, on his 85th birthday.  Well, forty years is a long time to keep one job.  I think Stevens had come to think the Senate was his, that the regular rules didn't apply to him.  Richard Nixon famously said once that "if the president does it, it's not illegal."  Watergate proved him wrong.  I suspect--I surely don't know--that Stevens had come to think of his power in the Senate in much the same way.
      While Republicans were debating what to do with Stevens--in the end they did nothing, the voters decided the election-- Senate Democrats were deciding what to do about Joe Lieberman.  He's an independent--one of two in the Senate--who caucuses with the Democrats--that is, votes with them on organizing the place--and so he's chairman of an important committee.
     Lieberman's offense was that he campaigned for John McCain in the election, not Barack Obama.  But the Democrats decided to do nothing.  I think--I surely, again, don't know--that Lieberman's personality had a lot to do with that.  He's a nice guy, fun to talk to, somebody you'd like to have lunch with, quite a different mix from the chillier Stevens.   Personality matters in politics, in how you appeal to the voters and, in a club like the Senate, what your fellow members think of you. 

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Monday, November 17, 2008

November 17, 2008

     A report from Dubai quotes former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani as saying he may run for president again.   Boy, I'll bet that has Republicans all over this country twitching with excitement.  The equivalent for the Democrats, I suppose, would be if Dennis Kucinich announced plans for a third White House run.  But the Democrats will presumably have an incumbent president running in 2012, so Kucinich may have to wait.
    The real question for Republicans probably isn't who, but what?  What sort of candidate and what sort of party should he represent?   Traditionally, the Republicans were for limited government, smaller government, lower taxes.  But George W. Bush has blown a huge hole in that philosophy.  He has spent more than any other president, has run the national debt up to record highs.  It will be hard to recover from that because we are in a recession and of course that's when people want more help from their government, not less.
     And Mr. Bush led us into two wars.  You can argue that he had no choice but to go after terrorists in Afghanistan after 9/11.  But he had plenty of choice about Iraq and chose a war which costs billions of dollars every month.   The Iraqis have now said we should leave by the end of 2011.  But a new conservative approach might be, why wait so long?  John McCain campaigned on staying until we'd achieved "victory" but I've never been sure what that would look like.
     A conservative party might emphasize diplomacy, not force of arms, in foreign policy.  No one wants to go back to 1930s isolationism, but it's surely cheaper to talk to other countries than to fight them.
     Domestically, there are programs that can be cut--subsidies to industry, subsidies to the arts, and so on.  And a conservative party might want to spend money, and create jobs, fixing up our aging infrastructure--roads, bridges, and so on.  It would put people to work and we need that.
     Anyway, that's the debate that hopefully lies ahead for the GOP.  Rudy Giuliani?  That can wait.  

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Sunday, November 16, 2008

November 16, 2008

     It's time to have fun in Washington these days, time to spread irresponsible rumors.  Just wander down the street where two or three people can hear you and say something like, "I hear it's Charlie Brown for Defense."  Keep walking.  They'll pass it on and, with any luck, you'll read some pundit in the morning, "Reliable sources say Charlie Brown is on the short list for Secretary of Defense."  You can't beat it.
    The fact usually is, of course, that the ones who know don't talk and the ones who talk don't know, but that's no reason not to have fun with it.  I keep reading, for instance, that Hillary Clinton is on the short list for Secretary of State.  Well, why not?  If I were President-elect Obama,  I'd be more likely to offer her Health, Education & Welfare.  She spent a lot of time, you may remember, working on health care during her husband's first year as president.  It didn't go anywhere; Congress didn't pass a bill.  But I'm sure she learned a lot about the issue and has learned more since.  What the heck, let Charlie Brown drive the tank.
     And that raises another question.  How much fun would you have in a cabinet job?  Most presidents want to be in charge themselves on the big issues:  foreign policy, defense.  You might have more power as Secretary of Agriculture.  Presidents are less likely to want to read the fine print on a 400 page farm bill.  Or maybe you'd be happier back in the Senate.  Nebraska Republican Chuck Hagel was quoted as saying he'd rather stay there.  You can pretty much choose how many hours you work, except for when big votes are scheduled, and you can learn as much or as little as you want about the various issues.
     The restaurant's gone up and down over the years, but most people who lunch at the State Department cafeteria don't rave about it either.    
     Anyway, it's an exciting time.
     Really?  Angelina Jolie for Treasury?  Where'd you hear that one?  I'll pass it on.

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November 15, 2008

     The New York Times reminds us that on this date in 1969--39 years ago--something like a quarter of a million people massed in Washington to demonstrate, mostly peacefully, against the Vietnam war.  The Mall was full, from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial.  I'm sure there were speeches.  I don't remember any of them.  What was extraordinary was this huge crowd assembled to tell its government--hey, you've messed up.  This war is a mistake.
     Nothing like that nowadays.  I'm not sure why.  I thought the Vietnam war was a mistake, especially after I'd covered it for some months.  I haven't covered Iraq--too old and slow--but from the start I've thought it was a mistake as well.  Sure, Saddam Hussein was a bad man, but he was no threat to the United States and he had nothing to do with the terrorists in Al-Qaeda.
     One difference, of course, is  that we still had a draft then.  Every draft age young man, and every parent of one, could think--hey, I have a stake in this.  Today our armed forces are volunteer.  Another difference is that American casualties are lower--fewer than, 5,000 Americans killed in Iraq;  58,000  American names are on the Wall here which honors the Americans killed in Vietnam. 
     Still, a bad war is a bad war.  That one was.  This one is.  I'm surprised we are not angrier about it.  Will President-elect Obama get us out of it as Richard Nixon, of all people, finally decided to get us out of Vietnam?  We have to hope so.
     I remember that demonstration, all those years ago.  There were many demonstrations and I could be wrong, but I think I ended my report for CBS News 39 years ago by saying, "It's been a very long day.  It's been a very long war."  This time too, Mr. President-elect.  This time too.

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Tuesday, November 11, 2008

November 11, 2008

     Abraham Lincoln said it best in his second Inaugural Address as the Civil War was coming to an end.   "...let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan...."  Care was less sophisticated then;  one cavalry troops was told they could keep the horses;  they'd need them for spring plowing.
     The best job we've ever done of caring for those who have borne the battle was, I think, with the GI Bill which became law at the end of World War II.  It paid a generation which could never have afforded college enough money to earn a degree.  I met some them--I was just starting college, they were finishing up--and they were doing fine--not living lavishly--who in college was?--but able to afford tuition and books and food and rent.  They graduated.
     Another part of the Bill offered veterans who wanted to buy a house low-interest mortgages.  A man named Leavitt pioneered building low cost homes--seven thousand dollars or so, unimaginable today--and the face of America changed.  That first GI Bill, whether Congress intended it or not, turned out to be one of the most important pieces of social legislation in our history.  It changed the country.
     We haven't done as well by veterans since--help with college, but often not enough to pay all the bills, and so one.  And the veterans of our two current wars--Iraq and Afghanistan--face special problems.   They are sent back for more than one tour, which adds stress and tension to their lives.  Some are badly hurt physically, wheelchair bound or using complicated prostheses which they handle--the few I've met--with astounding courage and grace.
     But money is short.   The Washington Post won journalism awards last year for pointing out inadequate care being given to some vets at Walter Reed Army Medical Center here in Washington.
     I read, Mr. President-elect, that your priority will be to focus on our distressed economy, and no wonder.  But you might want to give a thought, this Veterans' Day, to those who "shall have borne the battle" and how we can better pay them what we owe them,  which is a lot.  

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Monday, November 10, 2008


     Well, it's started, of course.  What's started?  The 2012 presidential campaign, silly.  You mean you hadn't noticed?
     Only Republicans, of course.  The Dems assume their guy will run again.  But the GOP?  Off and away!
     Arkansas' Mike Huckabee, who won the Iowa caucuses this year, will visit Iowa again November 20th--stops in Cedar Rapids and Des Moines, part of a tour promoting his new book. And talk little politics?  You betcha, as someone would say.  He'll have a bus with his picture on it.
     Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, a young hopeful, will visit the state November 22nd, keynoting the dinner of a Christian conservative group.  South Dakota Senator John Thune:  "I'm just trying to help the team," may be staying closer to home;  he's up in 2010.  But he knocked off Tom Daschle to win his Senate seat, and he's hot.
     The Republican governors are holding their annual conference this week in Miami, and hopefuls will blossom like roses.  Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty will be there making a speech.  Florida's own Governor Charlie Crist will be there, also making a speech.  He's on all the 2012 lists.  Sarah Palin is likely to be there, and likely to talk.  I mean, you can't ask them not to talk politics;  it's what they do.  It would be like asking a preacher not to pray.
     Mitt Romney is only a former governor, so he won't be there, but the AP quotes a friend as saying he's keeping his options open.  And columnist Bob Novak has just written a piece talking up former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who, face it, would probably not say no.
     So it's started again.  Already.  No, that's wrong.  It just never stopped.  It never does.

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Friday, November 7, 2008

November 7, 2008

     Well, he's started staffing his administration.  Done pretty well so far--Rahm Emmanuel is smart and Washington-wise, for instance.  What will be interesting, though, is now bi- or non-partisan he is.  One suggestion several columnists have made is to keep Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense.  The Pentagon is a mysterious place (trust me, I covered it for a few months years ago) but the people who cover it now seem to like and respect him.
     I hope he brings back Colin Powell in some top job.  Powell wasn't a great success as Secretary of State, but that's because others in the Bush administration fed him phony data about whether Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and he used that bad information to give a UN speech defending the U.S. invasion.  Iraq didn't have such weapons, of course. and the invasion remains, in my book anyway, George W. Bush's principal blunder as president.  Let's hope the new administration doesn't play those games.
     The tone Obama sets may matter more than which person gets which job.  What really needs to change in Washington Is the atmosphere of petty, pissy partisanship--I'll block you on this issue because you blocked me on that one.  It's the main reason why Americans tell pollsters that have a very low opinion of Congress.  Obama needs to get Congress, and his own people, thinking country first,  trying to do what's best for America, not just make partisan points on tomorrow's front page.
     He knows he needs to do this;  he talked about it during the campaign.  Let's all hope he has the skill, and judgment and luck to bring it off.  

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Thursday, November 6, 2008

November 6, 2008


     "It's morning in America."  That was a Ronald Reagan campaign slogan but it feels truer now than it did then.  It is morning.  The sun is up.  I am proud of my country again, a feeling I've often missed these past few years.
    There have been lots of proud moments over the years--we were on the right side in World War Two;  we were for the United Nations;  we passed the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act and we heard Lyndon Johnson, a Southern president, quote the civil rights anthem, "We shall overcome."  Good moments.
     But lately?  We've actually had an administration announcing which kinds of torture it endorsed.  Torture?  In America?  Yes indeed.  We've had tax policies designed to help the rich; the poor, our leaders figured, could help themselves.  We've neglected housing, neglected education and left me, quite often, with the unfamiliar feeling of being ashamed of my country.
     That's over, for now at least.  We don't know how well Barack Obama will do as president, but we do know, I think, that he will try to make us better again, to make us see a new sunrise with a bright future ahead.  Ronald Reagan, aside from proclaiming morning, used to speak of America as a "shining city on a hill."
     For the first time in several years, I think I can see the city again.  It's a ways off, but if we start moving, and I think we can now, we might get there one day after all.    Another proud moment.

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Wednesday, November 5, 2008

November 5, 2008

     The poet Langston Hughes wrote of America as the place "that never was and yet must be/ the land where every man is free."  We aren't there, of course;  we are not all equal nor all free and some of us usually go to bed hungry.  But we are a lot closer to Hughes's vision today than we were yesterday because we have elected a black man to be our president.
     "Change has come," Barack Obama said, and of course he's right.  I'm 78, old enough to remember Martin Luther King saying that he could see the Promised Land but wouldn't get there.  Obama's there.  If you'd asked me, twenty or thirty years ago if I would live to see this day, I think I'd have said no.  I am delighted to have been wrong.
     President-elect Obama (have to get used to typing that) may of course wish he hadn't sought the job.  He inherits two wars, an economy in serious trouble, a declining manufacturing base which means Americans will need better education to compete in the new technological environment--well, I could go on but you get the idea.  Still, one big barrier has come down. Mothers of any color can tell their two year-olds, hey, you can grow up to be president.  In fact, after Hillary Clinton's formidable campaign, they can say it to girls as well as boys.
     One of the songs the civil rights marchers used to sing goes, "Gonna keep on a-walkin', keep on a-walkin', till we get to Freedom Land."  We're not there yet, but yesterday we covered a lot of ground.   

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Tuesday, November 4, 2008

November 4, 2008

    No column this election day.
   Just two heartfelt, important words:  please vote. 

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Monday, November 3, 2008

November 3, 2008

     Americans elect a president tomorrow, of course, but they also (well, not those of us who live in Washington, D.C., but the rest of you) elect a Senate, and there are some interesting races. One of the most interesting is in Minnesota where a real comedian (we've had lots of unintentional ones in Congress, of course), a professional, Democrat Al Franken is running against incumbent Republican Norm Coleman.  It's supposed to be close.
     Then there's New Hampshire, where former governor Jeanne Shaheen is running against Republican incumbent John Sununu, who beat her six years ago.  She's led most polls, but again it's close.
    You may remember Morris Udall, a Democratic Congressman from Arizona for thirty years or so.  His Democratic family is all over the west--Representative Mark Udall is favored in Colorado, where Republican Wayne Allard is retiring.  Representative Tom Udall is thought to be leading Steve Pierce in New Mexico, where Republican Pete Domenici is retiring.
     Incumbents are usually favored.  In Arkansas the Republicans never found a candidate.  Mark Pryor only has to beat the Green Party nominee.  In Georgia, Republican Saxby Chambliss is running against former Congressman Jim Martin, who would need a heavy black turnout to have a chance.  Louisiana's Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu is thought to lead Republican John Kennedy (how does a Republican with that name campaign?) but it's close--her races always are.
     In South Dakota, Democratic incumbent Tom Johnson, who's recovering from a brain aneurysm, is favored.
     Alaska's different:  longtime Republican incumbent Ted Stevens, convicted on seven counts of failing to disclose hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of gifts, is running against the mayor of Anchorage, Jim Begich.  No one seems quite sure how that one will turn out.
     Most of the forecasts have the Democrats gaining some seats. They hope to get sixty--enough votes to cut off Republican filibusters.  But they'll have to win just about all the close ones to do that.

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Sunday, November 2, 2008

November 2, 2008

     Nicholas Kristoff points out in the New York Times today that in an "unscientific" poll of 109 professional historians 61 rated George W. Bush as the worst president we've ever had.  Well, yes--I'd certainly agree. 
     What it is, I think, is that he's lessened us in the world.  I am old enough to remember when the U.S. was truly a world power.  I recall an incident in the 1950s sometime--Dwight Eisenhower was president--when Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser announced he was going to nationalize the Suez Canal.  Britain, France and Israel sent troops to prevent this.  Eisenhower, without revving up a single helicopter, sent them a message--hey, guys, bad idea.  Why don't you bring your troops home?  All three countries did.  That, as we used to say in Chicago, was clout.
     It's hard to imagine an American president with that kind of influence today.  But we need to hope that the next one--I think it will be Obama, but whoever--can get some of that authority back.
     For one thing, we have to care about others' opinions of us;  we have to talk to other countries;  we have to look for interests we have in common.  We shouldn't be in Iraq;   we shouldn't be flailing about in a worsening war in Afghanistan with no clear idea of what to do next.  We should be talking to Iran because, as Winston Churchill famously said, "Jaw jaw is better than war war."
     But specific countries aside, we need to work at being the good guys again.  We shouldn't, for example, be debating what kinds of torture might be legal.  The United States should be against torture--any kind, any time, anywhere.
     Lots of people--not everyone, not all countries, but lots--used to see us as the good guys--relatively disinterested in territorial gain, anxious to help peace and stability where we could.  The next president should try to get some of that back.  It won't, I fear, be quick or easy. 
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Saturday, November 1, 2008

      Nobody ever said campaign ads were supposed to be fair or accurate or anything like that, of course.  If you're old enough, you can remember one in the 1964 campaign of a little girl whose play is interrupted by an atomic bomb exploding.  The point was that Barry Goldwater might do that (no proof offered of course) but not good old Lyndon Johnson.  It only ran once, but it had a large impact.
     Then there was Willie Horton, the criminal paroled on Michael Dukakis' watch as governor of Massachusetts.  That ran, it seems to me, about a million times and had an affect though, to be fair, he was paroled under a program Dukakis supported.
      And we can all think of more, of course.  But North Carolina Senator Elizabeth Dole may have retired the trophy for the scuzziest, most shameless ever in an ad she's running this fall against her Democratic opponent, state senator Kay Hagan.  It's about God.
     The ad shows members of an atheist group--the Godless Americans Political Action Committee, talking about some of their goals--removing 'In God we trust' from U.S. currency, the words 'under God' from the Pledge of Allegiance, and so on.  The ad questions why Hagan went to a fundraiser at the home of a man who advises the group.
     'Godless Americans and Kay Hagan,' the ad says. 'She hid from cameras. Took Godless money.  What did Hagan promise in return?'  Then the ad shows a picture of Hagan while a woman's voice says, 'There is no God!'  It's not Hagan's voice, of course, but the folks who made the ad don't tell you that.  Why would they?  Truth is not their goal.
     In fact, Hagan is a Presbyterian church elder and sometime Sunday school teacher. Her campaign has sued, charging Dole with defamation and libel.
     We don't know how the suit will turn out, of course, and the election is supposed to be close. You know, I'm sure, who I'm rooting for.  I wish Mrs. Dole had consulted her husband, who ran candid and basically clean campaigns for the Senate and the White House.  I suspect Bob Dole is a little embarrassed at what his wife is up to these days.

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