Thursday, May 28, 2009

May 28, 2009

     Losing's no fun;  we know that.  Then-President Richard Nixon nominated Judge Clement Haynsworth for a seat on the High Court back in 1969.  He lost.  Nixon's next nominee, G. Harrold Carswell, lost too but it was worse.  One of his defenders, Senator Roman Hruska of Nebraska, thundered, "Even if he is mediocre, there are a lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers.  They are entitled to a little representation, aren't  they?"  His colleagues answered, "No."
       Sometimes it's as bad when you win.  When Thurgood Marshall, the lion of the civil rights movement, resigned, President George Bush nominated Clarence Thomas, a black but no Marshall, to replace him.  Things puttered along calmly enough until a black woman named Anita Hill charged Thomas with sexually abusing her when she worked for him.
     Media frenzy?  Oh, yes.  Words like "penis" on national TV?  Oh, yes.  Thomas called the attacks "a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks."  The lynch mob failed;  the Senate confirmed Thomas 52-48, but the episode must have changed him forever.
     This time?  Won't happen. The country isn't as partisan.  In 2003 right-winger James Dobson called Justice Anthony Kennedy, often a swing vote, "the most dangerous man in America."  Not today.
     And the New York Times quotes Matthew Dowd (a political consultant and strategist for the 2004 Bush-Cheney campaign), saying that in 2000 the GOP would have needed 35% of the Hispanic vote to win a national election.  Now, he says, 40%.  Why get all those folks mad at you?  Republican senators will grumble and argue about Sonia Sotomayor, of course.  That's already started.  But in the end rather than lose all those votes, they'll give their vote.  She'll be confirmed. 

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Monday, May 25, 2009

May 25, 2009

     Maybe today is Abraham Lincoln's holiday.  He'd surely have preferred it to his birthday - honoring men he'd led in war...."let us strive to finish the work that we are in;  to bind up the nation's wounds;  to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow...."
     Maybe it is for Wildred Owen, a poet who fought in World War I.  He hated that war and died in its last week.   "If you could hear at every jolt the blood/ Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs/... My friend, you would not tell with such high zest/ To children ardent for some desperate glory,/ The old Lie:  Dulce et Decorum est/ Pro patria mori."
     Maybe the holiday belongs to a guy whose name I can't remember with whom I spend a long, bad day forty-some years ago in Vietnam.  The unit's job that day was to retrieve the bodies of young Americans who'd been ambushed and killed the day before.  At the end of the day, the guy I was with said, "It's a hell of a thing to say you've accomplished your mission when it's one like this."
     It's about honoring those who've served, and those who've died in battle.  Doesn't matter what kind of a war it is.  It mattered that they cared enough about their friends, their neighbors, their country to go.  I remember Bill Mauldin, the World War II cartoonist, saying that the war hadn't made the world any better "but you had to kill Hitler."   And, of course, you did.
     That was a "good war," most of us thought.  Vietnam divided us down the middle.  Iraq?  I can't imagine a good reason for invading it.  But we did and the guys, just about all of them, went.  Some went three and four times.
     But they cared enough to go.  Let us pause today and honor them all - those who came back to us, those who did not. 
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Friday, May 22, 2009

May 22, 2009

     Nowadays, when it's a car race, the starter  says, "Gentlemen, start your engines."  In the old days when it was swords or pistols, I think it was usually, "Take your places."  But no matter;  it's a duel, and President Barack Obama and former Vice President Richard Cheney are shooting to kill.
     The prison at Guantanamo?  "In the fight against terrorism," Cheney shot, "there is no middle ground and half measures keep you half exposed."  If you agree then you are saying that the U.S. Constitution's guarantees of the right to a fair trail, to a lawyer, to see the evidence against you - all fall before the need to lock up suspected terrorists.   You can in fact lock them up for life without ever charging them with anything.
     And torture is okay too, of course.
    President Obama's volley:  "I believe with every fiber of my being that in the long run we also cannot keep this country safe unless we enlist the power of our most fundamental values....Time and again, our values have been our best national security asset."  If you disagree, you may well be very frightened now.
     So is Mr. Obama the great defender of our freedoms?  Not exactly.  Mr. Obama says Guantanamo was a mistake, but adds that he would move "to construct legitimate legal framework" to justify the detention of terrorist suspects who could not be tried or released.   This scares some of his supporters to death.  But hey, it's early days.
     This is a very old battle.  In World War II Franklin Roosevelt sent Japanese-Americans  to concentration camps, not because they'd done anything wrong but just because of whom their ancestors were.  Pretty awful, we all decided later.  Much later.
    This time the game is still in play.  The winner?  Too soon to call but I'm pulling for the Constitution.

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Monday, May 18, 2009

May 18, 2009

     Here they come, walking tall, purposeful - proud men and women who've stood up for themselves on one of the great issues of the day.  The members of the D.C. City Council, they'd be, and they fought successfully to get back their free tickets to the home games of the Washington Nationals - the team with the worst record in major league baseball.  Talk about pork!
    Mayor Adrian Fenty, who has his own free tickets, nevertheless scooped up the Councils', apparently feeling you can't have too much of a bad thing.  "I think it is great we can put this behind us," Council member Jim Graham said yesterday.  "It was bad for the mayor, it was bad for the Council, it was bad for Mayor-Council relations."
    The civil war over tickets started last year and continued in full flower, or should that be full rancor, until now.  You're not going to find these grown ups, these civic leaders, these paragons wasting the taxpayers' time and money worrying about, say, pot-holed streets, a soaring homeless population or troubled schools.     No, they went to the issue that affects them - 19 seats in Suite 61 for every home game from now on.  I don't know how much those seats cost.  The seats I have - I'm part of a pool - are way up in the top deck, but right behind home plate. They cost twenty bucks a pop.  We can be sure, I suspect, that the freebies the Council members get are worth more than that.  Doesn't it make you proud?
    If there is some citizen resistance to this brazen waste of public time and money, I can think of a number of things we might do.  We could litter those 19 seats in Suite 61 with, say, human waste - or dog , whichever smelt the worst.  We could, if we were really clever and had a couple of good civil engineers amongst us, probably contrive a catapult which would lob bags full of interesting substances into the public gladiators' seats during games.
    I grew up in Chicago, where we thought we knew what petty partisan politics was all about.  But these clowns have reached new heights.  Congratulations, fellas - enjoy the game or games.  I hope from the bottom of my heart that you trip over a rotten hot dog smeared with mustard on your way to your free and wholly undeserved chunk of my tax money - aka your seat.

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May 15, 2009

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D Cal) acknowledged yesterday that in 2003 she was told by an aide that the CIA had briefed others in Congress that water boarding had been used during interrogations.  But she insisted, contrary to the CIA's accounts of the facts, that she was not told about water boarding during a 2002 briefing by the CIA.  Was she accusing the CIA of lying?  She said, "Yes, misleading the Congress of the United States."
She said she was told at that 2002 briefing that water boarding was not used on Abu Zubaida.   Porter Goss, former congressman (R Fla.) and later CIA director (2004-2006), said last month that he was "slack jawed" by lawmakers claims that they were not fully informed about water boarding.
There's an old dilemma to this kind of thing.  The government invites some congressmen in for a top, top, top, secret, secret, secret, hush, hush, hush briefing.  "You can't talk about this," the lawmakers are told.  "This is so secret that, if you talk about it, Americans will die.  You cannot talk about this!"
Then, of course, a year or two down the road the operation, the technique, the whatever it is leaks out.  This just about always happens.  But by the time it happens the war in which the secret was used may be over.  Old enemies have become friends and vice versa.  The Congress, thundering down the trail a few years late, wants to know what the hell was going on. 
Now, what should Congressman "X" do?  Does he break his word or does he lie?  Does Congressman "X" admit what he knows? He promised the Executive Branch he wouldn't, but that war is over now.  What harm could it do?
We may be about to find out.
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Tuesday, May 12, 2009

May 10, 2009

    Some traditional spring disasters are unfolding.  For instance, the Washington Nationals, not for the first time, have the worst record in major league baseball.
    But if you're looking for good news, we have some of that too.
    The U.S. has, I think, for the first time since Ronald Reagan, a president with a genuine happy sense of humor.  Barack Obama said to the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner this past weekend,  "During the second 100 days, we will design, build and open a library dedicated to my first 100 days.  My next 100 days will be so successful, I will complete them in 72 days.  And on the 73rd day, I will rest."  And he defended  his wife's "right to bare arms," comely ones at that. 
    Does all of this make a difference?  In a (forgive me) funny way, it might.
    This has been a grumpy capital for some years now.  Voters are dissatisfied - and so they should have been - with a careless cowboy for a president and a Congress more preoccupied with scoring partisan points than with passing legislation which might actually help the country.
    A colleague points out that George W. Bush was often funny, too, but adds that his jokes were unintentional - blunders, foot wedged firmly in mouth.  Obama speaks the language well, means what he says whether he is telling jokes or making policy.
    Having a smart, funny president won't bring peace to the Middle East or magically turn the economy around in 30 days - or even 72 - but a witty, thoughtful president may encourage countries to talk to us who otherwise might not, may even encourage Congress to climb out of the partisan swamp and start legislating to do some actual good.
    You gotta have hope.  "Hope is the thing with feathers."  Isn't it encouraging to laugh along with the President who means to make us laugh instead of a president who scares us half to death?
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Thursday, May 7, 2009

May 7, 2009

     I learned in Gail Collins's New York Times column today that Bristol Palin--yes, the governor's daughter, yes, the new mom--is now advocating abstinence as spokesman for the Candie's Foundation, which fights teen pregnancy.
     Forgive me, but isn't this a little like asking Bozo the clown to play Hamlet?
     I mean, there she is with the baby, saying "I just want to go out there and promote abstinence."  Promote, I guess.  Practice?  Obviously not.  She said of her baby, "You have so much responsibility.  It's just hard work all the time."  Well, maybe, mom.  My kids are grown now, much older and, thank goodness, wiser than you.  And, sure, babies are a lot of work;  I can remember that.  But they are also, or they can be, the objects of great joy and great love.  I don't know whether any of that has reached you yet, but I hope it has. Your mother's had, what, five kids;  she can probably talk to you about the joy, if you ask her.
     The evidence, anyway, is that teaching abstinence doesn't work unless you teach sex education along with it.  Gov. Palin has said that her daughter opposes "explicit" sex education which is, of course, the only kind that does any good.  
     Bristol Palin teaching abstinence just seems silly.  Will the baby appear at the events?  It's a little like John Edward preaching marital fidelity.  Just not quite there, somehow. 

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Tuesday, May 5, 2009

May 5, 2009

     Something weird is going on.  The Washington Post reports today that 50% of the Americans in its most recent poll think the country is going in the right direction, compared with 8% last October, just before we elected our new president.
     Then you look at the headlines in the New York Times.  "Where Home Prices Crashed Early, Signs of a Rebound" or "Health Officials Begin to Ease Public Alerts About Swine Flu" or "S and P 500 Erases 2009 Losses as Stocks Jump" or "Chrysler and Fiat have hopes for Happy Relationship."   Good news?  Breaking out all over?  What's going on?
     Well, maybe things are getting better, I don't know.  But news is never unmixed;  there's always some good in the bad and vice versa.  And good news, of course, is bad for pundits, columnists, commentators, the grumps who need something to worry about on the air or in print two or three times a week.  What are we going to do now?
     Relax, that's what.  To paraphrase Bogart to Bergman in "Casablanca,"  we'll always have Pakistan.  No chirpy headlines coming out of that place.  Taliban seizing this province, and that one - getting closer to the capital.  And if they knock over the government, it isn't one imperfect set of rogues replacing another.  So what?  If the Taliban win, they'll control Pakistan's nuclear bombs.  And if that doesn't worry you, you're just not trying.
     So the next seventeen columns may be about Pakistan.   It's easier, I  guess, to write about fear than cheer. 

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Friday, May 1, 2009

May 1, 2009

     Arlen Specter didn't suddenly become a Democrat because the Republican Party's philosophy was making him uncomfortable.  Of course not.  Arlen Specter switched parties because he thought that was his best chance of keeping his Senate seat.
     He was probably right.  In the GOP primary, he would have faced a more conservative Republican, Pat Toomey, who gave him a hard fight in 2004 and who would beat him now, according to public opinion polls. Specter figured he'd have a better shot in the general election, where Democrats and independents could vote for him.  He's probably right.
     But if the switch was purely out of self-interest, it still is a warning for the Republicans.  They like to insist there's really a conservative majority in the country.  But the evidence is that the middle is where most Americans are.  The number identifying themselves as Republicans has gone down in recent years.  The number of Democrats hasn't gone up all that much, but the GOP is losing voters.
    My own feeling is that's because the party's most militant conservatives are pushing, with some success, for the party to take hardline views on their issues--abortion, cuts in spending, and so on.  That's driving voters away.  The party needs to be more open, encourage debate and compromise on some of these issues.  I don't know if they'll do that, but if they don't, Specter will look like something of a prophet.

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