Saturday, January 31, 2009

January 30 Footnote

    CNN now reports the shoe monument's been taken down...after only 24 hours of life.
I thought it was a grand idea...I'd have left it up...I just don't think the Iraqis are ready for Broadway yet.
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Friday, January 30, 2009

January 30, 2008

     Monuments are supposed to say things--big, important things.  The Vietnam Wall speaks to use by showing us the names of the 58,000 Americans who died in what many thought was an unnecessary, foolish war.
     The State of Liberty speaks to the hopes of the millions of "huddled masses"  who came from Europe to seek a brighter future here.  "I lift my lamp," the inscription reads, "beside the golden door."
     And now a new one.  A huge sculpture of a shoe, CNN reports, has been unveiled in a ceremony at the Tikrit orphanage complex in Iraq.  It represents, of course, the shoes thrown at then-president George W. Bush during his last visit to Iraq by journalist Muntadhir al-Zaidi.
    It's a stroke of genius.  The story doesn't say whether they're charging admission but if they are, I'll bet they make a fortune.  Would visiting American GIs get a discount rate, or be charged extra? 
    An estimated 5.1 million Iraqis have been displaced by the war.  Will they love the shoe, or rather have real ones?    Should there be a motto with it?  Take the rest of your stuff and get out?  Beat feet?  Whatever.  Will they sell life-size replicas suitable for throwing at American tourists?
    I don't know but you have to admire the Iraqis.  It's in idea the late P. T. Barnum, an American owner of circuses, would have just purely loved.     

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Wednesday, January 28, 2009

January 28, 2009

     This column recently applauded Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich's decision to switch careers from indicted elected official to teacher of poetry. Turns out, though, there's a job even better suited to Blago's talents:  he could become a member of the British House of Lords.
     Sure, there might have to be a certain amount of constitutional fuss go get him in, but what the heck?  There are 743 members, most of them appointed;  who'd notice one more?  If the new guy's a crook, well, so what?  The Washington Post today quotes one peer, Thomas Taylor, as heard telling undercover reporters he could be paid to attach amendments to bills.  "That's cheap for what I do. You've got to whet my appetite to get me on board."  Taylor went on to say he felt he'd followed the rules.
     What if Lord Blago gets convicted over here in the States?  No problem. The Post reports that Conrad Black, a newspaper magnate convicted of fraud here in 2007 and serving time in a US prison, yet remains a member of the House of Lords.  You can't be thrown out no matter what you do, one leader explained. 
     I don't know whether Blago, in a US prison would be permitted to wear those those cool, ermine-collared red robes that the Lords wear when in session in London.  But hey, maybe the wardens would let him show it off once a week--on Sunday, maybe.  I mean, even a felon gets to dream a little.     

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Tuesday, January 27, 2009

January 27, 2009

     You read a lot these days about soaring unemployment, about the difficulty middle-aged people have when the jobs they've held for years disappear suddenly. So I'm especially proud this week of Rod Blagojevich, the governor of my home state of Illinois.
    His old job--gov--has just about disappeared--impeached but not yet convicted at this writing, but the impeachment vote was 114--1 which does at least hint at the probable outcome.  That didn't faze lago;  he's already found a new career--teaching poetry.
     He told NBC's Today Show he thought of Mahatma Ghandi, Nelson Mandela, and Dr. Martin Luther King as he was led away in handcuffs by FBI agents.  But it gets better.  At a news conference, the professor of poetry quoted Rudyard Kipling:  "If you can keep your head when those about you/ Are losing theirs and blaming it on you/ If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you/ But make allowance for their doubting too...."  A little later it was Lord Tennyson, "One equal temper of heroic hearts/ Made weak by time and fate but strong in will/ To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield."
     Then it was Kipling again:  "If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken/Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools/ Or watch the things you gave your life to broken,/ And stoop and build 'em up with worn-out tools...." He also compared himself to the "a 21st-century Frank Capra movie....whether it's Jimmy Stewart or Gary Cooper, I do see myself that way," he said.
     Well, talk about a transformation!  But I do have my doubts.  If it looks like a duck and walks like a duck, it probably is a duck. Quack, quack, impeached gov.  Bye-bye.

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Saturday, January 24, 2009

January 24, 2009

    What a difference a week makes!
    Pick up this morning's Washington Post and read that supervisors in the Bush Justice Department "routinely weighed political hiring for career positions, which is a violation of federal civil service laws."
    Contrast that with another headline about the new guy:  "Historians say he could redefine the Presidency" (Washington Post, 01/20/09).  Boy, could he ever.
    President Obama has issued an order "closing the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, which has been at the center of the debate over the treatment of US prisoners in the battle against terrorism." (again, The Washington Post)  The President has said the US will no longer torture prisoners.  He wants a case by case review of those still held at Guantanamo, people the Bush administration said could be held indefinitely with no right to know the charges against them nor the evidence against them, no right to a lawyer.
    Sources also said Obama will sign two executive orders "altering CIA detention and interrogation rules limiting interrogation standards in all US those outlined in the Army field manual and prohibiting the agency from secretly holding terrorist detainees in third country prisons."
    Appointing former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell as a special envoy to the Middle East - another positive move.  Mitchell, almost everyone in Washington would agree, is a thoughtful, intelligent man whether dealing with baseball (he had that Commission, you remember) or diplomacy.
    The Constitution, under which we theoretically live, got considerably scuffed and muddied during the eight Bush years.  In just four days the new guy seems to be trying to put the polish back on our grandest document.  Let's wish him well.
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Wednesday, January 21, 2009

January 21, 2009

    At the beginning he got the big things right.  The very start of the speech speaks of a war against the network of violence, an economy badly weakened, homes lost, jobs shed and, less concrete but perhaps more important, "a sapping of confidence...a nagging fear that America's decline is inevitable."
    Like any new president, he promised to fix tings.  But the suspicion here it that it will be a long, hard task.
    Can President Obama reform a Congress which for generations now has focused on the trivial:  my name on my highway, my earmarks, and so on?  To remember a time when Congress dealt with big issues, you have to go back to Vietnam and Civil Rights - a couple of generations ago.
    Reforming the Congress will require doing something about the lobbyists - convincing members that staying on the floor and voting on the housing bill may matter more than a fun weekend on a golf course.  Congresses haven't thought that way for a while.  Can Obama change them?  Is it possible to imagine a lobbyist asking himself not what's good for my client but what's good for my country?  Once upon a time that was a common question in Washington, but the president who asked it has been dead more than 40 years.
    In much of his speech yesterday Obama seemed to be asking ordinary Americans--that's you and me--to do just that, to put our country first.  If we don't, he hinted, we, America, may not make it.
    So it seems to me that what this somewhat messianic leader is asking for is a kind of national conversion, or a reversion, maybe, to the values of an older America that at least some younger Americans seem to believe in.
    Let's hope he gets the conversion.  Let's hope that you and I and millions of others join the choir.  Let's hope that all those people at all those Obama rallies and all those standing on the Mall yesterday who yelled "Yes, we can!" were right.
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Monday, January 19, 2009

January 19, 2009

    We haven't had very many presidents.  George W. Bush is only our forty-third. 
    A lot of the inaugural addresses we have had were ordinary.  Some were not.  Those can teach us lessons we, and George W. Bush, may have forgotten over the last eight years. 
George Washington, 1789:  "And since the preservation of the sacred fire of liberty, and the destiny of the Republican model of Government, are justly considered as deeply, perhaps as finally staked, on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people."
Thomas Jefferson, 1801:  "...and may that Infinite Power which rules the destinies of the universe lead our councils to what is best, and give them a favorable issue for your peace and prosperity."
Andrew Jackson, 1829:  "In administering the laws of Congress I shall keep steadily in view the limitations as well as the extent of the Executive power, trusting thereby to discharge the functions of my office without transcending its authority.  With foreign nations it will be my study to preserve peace and to cultivate friendship on fair and honorable terms, and in the adjustment of any differences that may exist or arise to exhibit the forbearance becoming a powerful nation..."  (No W, he.)
Woodrow Wilson, 1913:  "The scales of heedlessness have fallen from our eyes.  We have made up the standards we so proudly set up at the beginning and have always carried at our hearts.  Our work is a work of restoration."
Franklin Roosevelt, 1933:  "This is preeminently the time to speak the truth the whole truth, frankly and boldly.  Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today.  This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper.  So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself--nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance....
    "The people of the United States have not failed  In their need they have registered a mandate that they want direct, vigorous action.  They have asked for discipline and direction under leadership.  They have made me the present instrument of their wishes.  In the spirit of the gift I take it."
    Barack Obama, soon our 44th President can clearly say as John Kennedy did in 1961,  "We observe today not a victory of party but a celebration of freedom--symbolizing an end as well as a beginning--signifying renewal as well as change....the torch has been passed to a new generation..."
    But he might find himself most at home, as he often seems, with Abraham Lincoln  who in 1865 had to deal with an afflicted population at home--poverty and racial division and veterans of two armies returning home:  "...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--to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations."
We don't know, Mr. President, what words you will use in your speech tomorrow or what hopes you will inspire.  Your listeners are ready for big changes.  We want, I think, what you've used as your inaugural theme, what Lincoln said in his Gettysburg Address:   "A New Birth of Freedom."  We need one.

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Sunday, January 18, 2009

January 19, 2008


    Inaugurals, for some reason, very often come in times of stress.
    You could start, of course, with George Washington for whom everything was a precedent.  Big questions.  How does this new, little country deal with the world?  And silly ones.  What does the president do with his laundry?
    Abigail Adams actually solved that one.  She hung her husband's unmentionables out to dry in the East Room so that the vulgar masses wouldn't see them swinging freely in the backyard.
    But serious crises, too.  Millard Fillmore and Abraham Lincoln were confronted with slavery.  One of them didn't handle it;  the other, of course, was brilliant.
    And then there were the war presidents:    Woodrow Wilson, who had to decide what to do about World War I;  and Franklin Roosevelt, who changed almost everything.   His domestic program helped end the Depression and his leadership in response to Pearl Harbor ("a day that will live in infamy...") changed America from a power into a great power - which it remains today.
    And surely no president had a rockier start than Harry Truman.  He may have been #2 in the White House pecking order, but Roosevelt had never told him the United Sates was developing an awesome new weapon call the atomic bomb.  It was Truman who had to decide whether to drop the bomb.  Without it, he'd been told, a land invasion of Japan would cost a million American casualties.  Truman made the correct decision, most of us would probably now say.  And the US remains the only nation ever to have used nuclear weapons in war.  That was just one of Truman's decisions:  unconditional surrender, formation of NATO, the Marshall Plan, the UN, help for Greece and Turkey against the Communists, the GI Bill, which changed America.  Decision after decision.   Looking back, though he was very unpopular at times, Mr. Truman got most of them right.
    Dwight Eisenhower and John Kennedy had relatively calm inaugural periods, but they are the exceptions, not the rule.
    Lyndon Johnson inherited a nation in deep mourning for its Camelot and then was trapped in a bloody useless war in Vietnam.  Yet at the same time he changed the country forever with the Voting Rights and Civil Rights Acts.
    Now here's a new guy who inherits two wars and an economy which seems bent on foolishness if not self-destruction.  Given our history, you'd have to say most new presidents who faced crises did pretty well.  Barack Obama seems - we don't know yet, of course - as if he might the the right man for these particularly difficult times.
    Let's hope he - and we - are that lucky.
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Thursday, January 15, 2009


Dear Friends,
Bruce's column is on a brief hiatus. Please stay tuned.

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Friday, January 9, 2009

January 7, 2009

     You've got to feel sorry for those voters in Illinois.  The governor, who once apparently wanted to put Barack Obama's Senate seat up for sale, has now appointed a former state Attorney General, Roland Burris.  The Senate says they won't have him-- except now they say maybe they will, but you can't be certain.  Or feel for those folks in Minnesota with Norm Coleman versus Al Franken.   Franken is supposed to have won the runoff by a couple of hundred votes but Coleman is suing.  Maybe there'll be a recount of the recount.  And, hey, do you suppose they could string this out for the whole six-year term and then have an election in 2014?  Sounds possible.
     This hoorawing around makes you feel sorry for those folks in Illinois and Minnesota because they won't have proper representation in the Senate.  It makes you feel sorry for them unless you live in the District of Columbia.  We don't have any senators or any Congressmen either.  Second class citizens?  You bet.
     I mention this only because they're talking again--they do this every few years--about giving Washington an actual Congressman, one who can vote.  What we have now is a non-voting delegate.  She's a nice woman, but being in Congress without having a vote is kind of like trying to fly without wings.
     Washingtonians are used to it, of course;  it's always been that way.  Taxation without representation, you've heard of that.
    They're talking about maybe changing that, giving the District one Congressman with an actual vote. That isn't fair either, of course.  The city has as many people as one or two of the least populated states;   they get senators.  But it would, I suppose, be better than the nothing we have now.  
     But who knows?  President-elect Obama was for giving a vote DC in the House at one point, unless he's changed his mind.  But Congress doesn't like it--why let a new guy in the club,  I guess.   I won't hold my breath until it happens.

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Tuesday, January 6, 2009

January 6, 2008

     Barack Obama doesn't take office for another two weeks, but he's already doing some interesting things.  The latest of these is naming former Congressman, White House Chief of Staff and OMB director Leon Panetta to be head of the CIA.
     Critics are muttering--but the man has no experience in intelligence work.  Quite right, and that just may be a good thing.  I remember John Kennedy, after ordering the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, telling associates that was the last time he was going to assume that the intelligence agencies would always get it right.  They hadn't, of course.
     If your whole background is intelligence work, you probably do take its recommendations as revealed wisdom, at least most of the time.   And of course they aren't, always.  Politicians, even good ones, sometimes misread the voters;  spies, even good ones, sometimes misread the people they're spying on. They were going to love us in Baghdad, remember, because we'd overthrown Saddam Hussein.  Pretty tough love, all those bombings and shootings.
     I think there's a lot to be said for having some skeptical outsiders in the chain of command. And new faces, too, will make make it easier to correct some of the things the agencies have done that most Americans disapprove of--torture, secret prisons and so on.   A careerist probably would have been part of some of that, somewhere along the way.  Mr. Panetta certainly has not been.
    So, good thinking, Mr. Presdent-elect, and good luck once you take that oath of office.  You'll probaby need it.   

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Sunday, January 4, 2009

January 4, 2008

     The Washington Post, which has been trying to tell us what Inauguration Day will be like, notes today that projections are that between 1.5 and 3 million people will be visiting Washington that day.  That's probably more than the city can hold.
     I can remember some of the big anti-Vietnam War demonstrations on the Mall in the 60s and 70s.  Organizers would claim there were a quarter of a million people on the Mall, maybe half a million.  I don't know how they knew;   nobody could really count a crowd like that.  But the Mall was crowded.  I remember that.  If  that was a quarter of a million, where are six or ten times that many going to go?
     I'm not even worrying about where they'll sleep, or eat or go to the bathroom;  I'm sure the hotels have all tripled their rates and are full.  Anybody with relatives here will probably try to sleep on the living room couch, something like that.  I'm just worried that they won't all fit on the Mall for the ceremony, which means they won't have much of a view and will probably have trouble hearing the speech.
     These huge crowd estimates are of course a tribute to the excitement the prospect of Obama as president generates.  It's a compliment to him and I expect it makes a lot of us feel better about being Americans, feel that our country is getting closer to fulfilling some of it promise and hope. That's fine, but will they fit?  This a fairly small city;  you could lose a couple of million in, say, New York, but not here.
     My own plan is simple.  I won't leave the apartment.  I'll hide under the bed with a small TV, have an excellent view and hear the speech.  After it's over, I may stand up and pour myself a celebratory glass of wine.  I wish those traveling millions well, of course. I just don't want to join them on the Mall.

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Friday, January 2, 2009

January 2, 2008

     Illinois is my home state.  It's always had interesting politics, maybe never more so than now.
     There's Blagojevich, the governor, under fire for being recorded wondering how much he could get for appointing someone to Barack Obama's Senate seat.  Well, says the governor, I'll show 'em.  He offers the seat--no money involved now, to a black Congressman from Chicago, Danny Davis, who said no thanks, anybody the governor appointed would be unable to serve.  So the gov then appoints Roland Burris, who's held middle level offices--state attorney general, but had run repeatedly for governor and senator without success.
     Burris says he's legit, because the gov has the authority to appoint him.  But it's not that simple, of course.  The U.S. Senate might refuse to seat him.  Obama says Blagojevich should step down and let the successor appoint a senator.  The Illinois legislature is fixing to impeach the gov.  He's trying to fight that in court.
     I don't know how Illinois works, but here in Washington the courts don't play any role in impeachment.  An impeachable offense is whatever the House puts into its articles of impeachment.  If the Senate votes to convict, the impeached person--president or anybody else--is gone.  Richard Nixon resigned his presidency because the votes for impeachment were there;  Bill Clinton didn't resign because he knew the votes weren't there.
     I don't presume to advise the Illinois legislature;  I don't know them and I haven't lived there for years.  But a quick impeachment might be the easiest course--blow the smoke off the battlefield, clear out the governor, and let his successor, presumably the Lt. Gov., get to work.
     Just a thought, guys.  But ain't you got fun?  
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January 1, 2008

     It's a new year.  It's winter but spring lies ahead.  It's a time, perhaps, for hope, for the belief that things can and will get better.  That's especially true for us Americans because we have a sort of second New Year coming.   In less than three weeks, Barack Obama will replace George W. Bush as president.  What a relief!
     I don't know how well or how badly Mr. Obama will do as our leader, but I'll be stunned if he doesn't improve on Mr. Bush's record.  First, I hope he'll return to the days when we honored the Constitution, talked about a government of laws and not of men.  Mr. Bush seemed to feel that in wartime, the Constitution didn't apply, that he, the Decider, was all-powerful.  Spy on Americans without a court order?  Tap their phones?  Read their mail?  Sure, why not?  Hold prisoners in secret jails?  Sure.  Hold them without ever putting them on trial, without telling them what they were accused of, what evidence there was against them?  Sure.  I hope very much that Mr. Obama ends all that and returns to the Constitution that helped make this country great.
    Then, I hope he talks to people, all sorts of people, those who wish us well--fewer of them now than eight years ago-- and those who don't.  I hope he avoids labels--no Axes of Evil scattered around the world and instead tries to find out whether we and, say, Iran, can't coexist without having to have a war.  The planet is more crowded than it used to be, but there may still be enough room for us all as long as we don't insist that everyone else behave like us.  I think the Saudis' restrictions on women are silly, of course.  But that's their business, not mine.   
     I don't know how much of this stuff Obama will do, or even want to do.  But I'm hopeful, for the first time in well, what--eight years. 

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