Tuesday, March 31, 2009

March 29, 2009

On this day in 1973, the last American troops left Vietnam and Hanoi released its last U.S. prisoners of war. Our part in that war was over; the war itself ended in 1975 when the Communists captured Saigon--Ho Chi Minh City, as it is now called.

It was a tragic war. More than fifty thousand Americans died in it and several times that many Vietnamese. When the Japanese left Vietnam toward the end of World War II, Ho Chi Minh captured Hanoi and declared the country independent. That was okay with the Allies--British troops on the ground and U.S. naval forces, but Charles de Gaulle insisted from Europe that it must be a French colony again and so the Allies drove Ho out. What a saving if they'd just not bothered!

But the war did end finally and, wonder of wonders, we and they are sort of friends. We exchange ambassadors; we cooperate on information about the missing; the Vietnamese have discovered capitalism. The last time I was there--it's a few years ago now--the phrase you heard most often was "joint venture"--they were all seeking foreign investors. Among the tourists I saw were middle-aged Americans who'd fought there.

We get along now, in other words.

Somehow, it's hard to imagine us getting along with the Iraqis or the Afghans a generation after those wars end, if they ever do. I suppose it's possible, but I don't quite see how. Religion may he at the heart of it. Many Americans feel theirs is evil; many of them feel that we are infidels who just don't matter much. And that's a pity. We get along with the Germans and the Japanese, though that war was a very long time ago. We get along with the Vietnamese. The Iraqis? I really doubt it.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

March 24, 2009

These are tough times to write about. Things that were up, like the economy, are down. Things that were down, like Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, are up. He released his plan for the government to relieve banks of troubled assets, bad loans, and so on, and the Dow Jones Industrial average went up almost 500 points, so Geithner is now a hero, or a star, or something.
But respected columnist Eugene Robinson worries that taxpayers may suffer, noting that Geithner has "not been impressive as a performer." Respected columnist George Will writes of "recent lawlessness, situational constitutionalism and institutional derangement" on the part of the administration. Respected columnist Richard Cohen writes that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi "is off to one hell of a start" in this new administration, but "The President, alas, is a different story."
So who's up and who's down? It's hard to know. The various anti-recession programs are hard to follow unless you have a degree in economics. But the real blow to the American Way of Life was in another front-page story in Tuesday's Washington Post. Its headline "Daily Red Meat Raises Chances of Dying Early."
Now wait just a darn minute! When I was growing up, we all knew that red meat was good for us. Strong Americans, we knew, would chomp steak on a daily basis and go out and conquer the world. Red meat would make us strong, make us the good guys, maybe. Well, turns out that if you eat four ounces a day--that's a teensy hamburger--you are 30% more likely to die in the next ten years, mostly from heart disease and cancer.
Sheesh, what's left? Candy is. Turns out its dandy in a recession. Sales are up. The New York Times quotes a San Francisco salesman, Jamie Hallman, as saying, "All is well in candy land."
Trouble is, of course, I'd rather have a burger.

Monday, March 23, 2009

March 23, 2009

     I don't know, maybe it doesn't mean anything, but it's odd.
     There was President Obama in California last week, talking, among other things, about the handicapped.  "We need everybody," he told a handicapped questioner at a Los Angeles forum. "Every program that we have has to be thinking on the front end how do we make sure that it is inclusive and building into it our ability to draw on the capacities of persons with disabilities."
     But there he was a little later on the Jay Leno show taking about his bowling game as being "like the Special Olympics or something."  That's crude and insulting to people with handicaps, of course, and it came from a man who normally seems careful in his speech, aware of the words he's using.
     The Leno crowd laughed, but that's not the point.  Obama apologized to the Special Olympics people, but that's not the point either.  I remember years ago when a Congressional colleague referred to Barney Frank, the Massachusetts democrat who was the first openly gay member of the House as "Barney Fag."  The Congressman apologized and said it just "slipped out." Frank said, correctly, "If it isn't in there it can't slip out."
     So did we learn something new and unpleasant about our president last week?  As I said at the beginning, I don't know.  But I'll keep listening.     

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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

March 17, 2009

     Charles (Chuck) Grassley is a Republican senator from Iowa.  Like most Iowans, he is quiet, moderate, well-spoken, not given to rants or tantrums.  So you can imagine my surprise when he said  AIG executives, who have  awarded themselves millions of dollars in bonuses despite running the company into the ground, might want to kill themselves. 
     "I suggest, you know, obviously, maybe they ought to be removed.  But I would suggest the first thing that would make me feel a little bit better toward them if they'd follow the Japanese example and come before the American people and take that deep bow and say 'I'm sorry,' and then do one of two things:  resign or go commit suicide.  And in the case of the Japanese, they usually commit suicide before they make any apology."
     Whoee!  Holy Moley!  Wow!
     He used to be such a soft-spoken guy.  And yet, and yet...if I'd lost my life savings in the collapse these managers managed, I'd be tempted to stand up and say, "Way to go, Chuck! They won't do it, of course, but you're right."
     A bonus for wrecking  a company demands really extraordinary arrogance, a belief that the rules that govern ordinary life, ordinary people, don't apply to me because I'm so special.  "Masters of the Universe" they called themselves in one movie I remember.  It's a little like a general who's lost a battle demanding a victory medal.
     And the other thing, of course, is that the supposedly powerful U.S. government apparently can't do anything about it.  Why not?  Arrest them, seize their bank accounts, nationalize the money in the interest of national security--do something to get the money back!
     And if the government can't, well, bravo Mr. Grassley.  You speak for many.  

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Monday, March 16, 2009

March 16, 2009

     Some anniversaries we remember fondly.  Not today's.  On this day in 1968, a platoon of the American Division, commanded by a lieutenant named William Calley, killed a great many unarmed Vietnamese civilians in a village called My Lai.
     It took time for the story to leak out.  An Army photographer, not a member of Calley's platoon, took some pictures we all, if we are old enough, remember--the bodies on a trail, the bodies in a ditch.  I can still hear Mike Wallace on CBS's "60 Minutes" asking Paul Meadlo, one of the soldiers, "You shot women? Yes. Children? Yes.. Babies? Yes."  It was a shocking interview;  the pictures were shocking pictures.  Calley was charged with the murder of 109 Vietnamese civilians.  The Vietnamese said as many as 500 may have died.
     Calley's court martial began in November 1970.   He testified, of course, in his own defense.  I remember him saying, "They were all the enemy, sir. They were all to be destroyed."  They weren't the enemy, of course, just poor, luckless civilians caught up in a war--like so many others, in so many other wars.
     Calley was convicted, finally--the only My Lai defendant who was.  Several governors, including Georgia's Jimmy Carter, protested;  several state legislatures did, too.   A poll showed most Americans disagreed with the verdict, though there's no doubt about what happened.  Many members of the platoon said they saw Calley shoot;  some joined him;  some refused.
     In the end Calley was sentenced to life imprisonment but President Richard Nixon commuted his sentence to timer served--about three years.  Calley vanished from public view, went to work in his father-in-law's jewelry store.
     What, if anything, did we learn from it all?   That wars, in the old 60s saying, are bad for children and other living things.  That Americans can be as brutal and senseless in wars as anybody else. 
     Wars ought to be a last resort. We're in two of them now, and I don't know that either was something we absolutely had to do.  World War II was, but it may have been the last one.  

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Saturday, March 14, 2009

March 14th, 2009

The Wall St. Journal has surveyed forty-some economists and reports that they give President Obama low marks on the economy--his score was 59 out of a possible 100.

What this proves, I think, is that economists are an impatient lot.

Mr. Obama has been in office just fifty days. That's not long enough to build a house or write a novel, let alone turn around something has big as the U.S. economy. I am not an economist; I don't know whether the stimulus package the president proposed and Congress passed is the right medicine or not. I don't know whether it's too small or too big or just right. But I do know that it's too soon to judge how well or badly it's worked.

Critics also charge the president with taking on too many issues--not just the economy but health care and education and so on. Well, we have a lot of problems. Why shouldn't an energetic young president take a run at them? Of course he won't fix them all, but things may just improve in some of those areas. That would be a positive change from our last president who will be remembered, I expect, mainly for the wars he got us into.

Anyway, let's give the new guy some time, some breathing room. If after a year in office he hasn't fixed everything, then we can really let him have it. Or maybe two years? We'll be electing a Congress then. In my view it's Congress, not the President, that really needs to clean up its act--stop being rigidly partisan and start legislating. Just a thought, guys, just a thought.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

March 11, 2009

    Are newspapers dying?  Some of them certainly are.  You probably read about the Rocky Mountain News closing the other day.  More are on the brink.
     24/7 Wall Street, a firm which deals in financial news and opinion, has come out with a list of ten major papers it says are likely to fold or only print online.  These are big papers:  the Philadelphia Daily News, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the Miami Herald, the Boston Globe, and so on.  What's going on?
     A generation or two ago, the arrival of evening newscasts on TV killed afternoon papers. The best-written paper in Chicago when I was growing up was the Chicago Daily News.  Along came TV and the News, like all the PMs folded.  The villain this time seems to be news on the internet. Papers are hurting;  some TV ratings are down, too.
     The New York Times has an interview today with Nick Bilton, who's in its research and development lab.  He talks about news showing up on little mobile screens, on laptops, e-book readers, television screens.  But he thinks newspapers will survive.  I hope he's right.
     The fact is, democracies need smart, well-informed voters.  TV news doesn't offer the range a newspaper does.  Years ago when I worked at CBS, I remember people saying that the whole Evening News--about twenty-three minutes, the rest was commercials--would fit on the front page of the Times, maybe with space left over.  Most of these new on-line forms are brief as well.
     So newspapers cut their staffs, cut down on what makes them special--investigative reporting, foreign coverage, and so on.  If everyone just runs the Associated Press story, consumers get only one version of the truth, and that's not good.
     The solution, probably, is for newspapers to figure out a way to put all that good stuff on the internet, run ads with it and charge for it.  That hasn't happened yet;  let's hope it does.  Old guys like me, of course, will still miss the way the paper feels in the morning as you sip your coffee and crinkle the pages.   

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Monday, March 9, 2009

March 9, 2009

     We know things are awful.  The Washington Post's headline today is:  "U.S. Downturn Dragging World Into Recession."   Yesterday's:  "The Next Hit: Quick Defaults."  But we've been even worse off in the past and come back.
     The President then reminded us, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself--nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance."   Franklin Roosevelt, of course, in his First Inaugural in 1933 when the Great Depression was at its height.
     He was candid about the problems:  "Values have shrunken to fantastic levels....our ability to pay has fallen;  government of all kinds is faced by serious curtailment of income...a host of unemployed citizens face the grim problems of existence...."   The country, FDR noted, was not broke:  "Nature still offers her bounty...plenty is at our doorstep" but "the rulers of the exchange of mankind's good have failed....they have resorted to exhortations, pleading tearfully for restored confidence.  They know only the rules of a generation of self-seekers. They have no vision and when there is no vision the people perish."
     Roosevelt had a vision, of course;  it involved a greatly expanded role for government to try to stimulate the economy, bring it back to life.  You can argue how successful his efforts were, though as a kid I went to schools and walked over bridges that his Works Progress Administration had built.  Maybe only World War II really ended the Depression, but FDR changed the national mood, got people thinking they could make a difference.
     I think we need a speech like that one of his now.  We need for the president to lay out as simple as possible--few of us are good at economics--where he thinks we are and where he wants to take us.  I don't think he's quite done that yet. Too late to call it an Inaugural, of course.  But maybe a Fireside Chat? 

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Sunday, March 8, 2009

March 7, 2009

      President Obama is moving back toward constitutional government, but slowly.  The Supreme Court, which Obama of course does not control, took one step yesterday, vacating a lower court ruling that the president can indefinitely detain a legal U.S. resident he says us a terrorism suspect.  The Court didn't say the lower court ruling was wrong, just that it was moot because the Obama administration has indicted the alleged terrorist and plans to put him on trial.  It's a step.
      Obama's Attorney General, Eric Holder, has denounced water boarding as torture.  The Bush administration used it.  It's another step.
     And federal officials have finished compiling dossiers on 241 detainees in custody at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.  Some of them, at least, are likely to be transferred to other jurisdictions, eventually to stand trial.  It's another step.
     The Bush administration apparently believed that the Constitution doesn't count in wartime.  The Fourth Amendment says you can't search people or papers or houses without a warrant.  Mr. Bush thought you could because we were fighting terrorism and needed to ignore some rights.  The Fifth Amendment says you can't be held for a crime unless you're indicted.  The Sixth says the accused is entitled to a speedy, public trial.  The Bush administration thought it was okay to arrest suspected terrorists and hold them--no charges, no lawyer, no trial--forever.
      Individual rights usually take a beating in wartime;  President Lincoln suspended habeas corpus--the accused's right to appear in court and hear the charges against him--during the Civil War.  Mr. Bush certainly suspended some rights during this war.  Now we seem to be moving back toward the rule of law.  How many steps?  How quickly?  We don't know.    

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Tuesday, March 3, 2009

March 3, 2009

    A little quiz today.  First:  when and why did the United States invade Iraq?  The date's easy--it was 2003.  Why?  I had no idea then and I have no idea now.  We knocked off Saddam Hussein, who was a bad guy, but he wasn't our bad guy--why him and not somebody else?  I don't know. What did we gain from conquering him?  Beats me. 
     Second and last question:  when and why did the United States invade Afghanistan?  That was earlier, in 2001, and the stated reason was to get at the terrorist Taliban, which had training camps there.  Okay, we conquered the place and set up a government that just about everyone who's been there says is corrupt and weak.  But did we get rid of the Taliban?  Not so's you'd notice.
     One of these wars is six years old, one eight--both longer than World War II.  If they have helped us as as country, made us stronger and safer, I've missed it.  Maybe, just maybe, the new president will take a new look. Just because you invade, you don't have to stay.  Even the Romans left Gaul, eventually.
     And maybe we could talk to these countries instead of shooting them up.  Our own military is severely stressed because people have done three or four tours in the combat zones.  That doesn't work very well. Vietnam was an unsatisfactory war, too, but at least the troops knew you did your twelve-month tour and then you went home.  
     A new look, Mr. new President?  Please?

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Monday, March 2, 2009

March 1, 2009

Congress these days is amusing itself with an old favorite issue--should Americans who live in Washington, D.C., be represented in Congress? We never have been. We are allowed to vote for president but have no congressmen (well, one non-voting delegate but that really doesn't count) nor senators.

Those who think it should stay that way cite the Constitution, which says clearly in Article I, "The House of Representatives shall be chosen every second year by the People of the several States...." And the District, of course, is not a state. It's a district.

So why not amend the Constitution? Congress approved an amendment giving the District a congressman and two senators back in 1978, but it didn't win approval from enough states to take effect. The last effort to simply pass a bill failed in the Senate.

This year, the Senate has approved the bill, but Republican John Ensign of Nevada attached a really clever amendment which would annul most of D.C.'s relatively strict gun control laws. Ensign presumably figures that's a bill-wrecker because a lot of people who think Washingtonians should have a Congressman also favor gun control. He may very well be right about that.

The bill, with his amendment, has passed the Senate. This coming week the House is expected to pass a version without the amendment, setting up a Senate-House conference to reach some sort of compromise. If they fail, the bill dies. If they succeed, the bill becomes law but will almost certainly face a court challenge because, again, the District isn't a state.

It's the kind of good tangle parliamentarians can love. If, on the other hand, you are Eleanor Holmes Norton, who's been the District's non-voting delegate to Congress for about a hundred years, you probably want to scream and start climbing the walls.

Londoners vote, so do Parisians and Berliners. I guess we're just special, somehow.