Saturday, February 28, 2009

February 26, 2008

     He's been in office just over a month and we know one thing for sure about President Obama:  he thinks very, very big.
     Here they come-- trillions of dollars for economic recovery, trillions for health care, trillions for--well, you name it--and oh, yes, more troops for Afghanistan.  The Washington Post's David Broder writes, "The size of the gambles that President Obama is taking every day is simply staggering" and talks of "the unbelievable stakes he has placed on the table."  Well, he's got that right, for sure.
     Will he succeed?  I have no idea.  He insists passivity won't work.  He's probably right about that.  See:  Bush, George W.   Obama says we will rebuild, but that's what presidents say, of course.  See:  Roosevelt, Franklin D.
   My guess is that the economy will turn around during his term because that's what economies do, sooner or later.  It's hard to see how all this rescue money can hurt.  And economic success will probably be enough to get him reelected.  Harder to foretell is what will happen in remote placed like Afghanistan.  One place to start might be by appointing some people who know the region to take a hard new look at what our interests there really are--do we need to fight a war there, and all that.  It's usually harder to get out of such messes than into them.  Having people think about how to leave might help.
     "May you live in interesting times" is supposed to be a Chinese curse, but this president has jumped at all these challenges as if he loved them.  It will be interesting, however it turns out.   

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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

February 25, 2009

     Every once in a while you come across a new argument on an issue you thought you knew all about.  Capital punishment, for instance.  The state has a right to kill people or it doesn't;  the death penalty reduces crime or it doesn't.  And so on.  But now the New York Times reports a whole new look at the issue--states thinking about banning the death penalty because it's too expensive in these hard times.
     The Times quotes Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley as telling his state senate that capital cases cost three times as much as homicide cases where the death penalty is not an issue, "And we can't afford that when there are better and cheaper ways of reducing crime."  The Times says the issue has also been raised in other states--Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska and New Hampshire, and it quotes experts as saying repeal of the death penalty has a good chance of passing in Maryland, Montana and New Mexico.
     New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, who has supported the death penalty, now says he may sign a bill repealing it.  He cites cost as one reason for his change of mind.
     The experts say death penalty trials take longer, involve more expert witnesses and generate more appeals.  In Maryland, prosecutors have sought the death penalty in 162 cases since it became legal again in 1978. They got it 56 times, but lost most of those on appeal.  Only five people have actually been executed in Maryland.  Five more are on death row.
     Sounds like an idea whose time has passed, don't you think?   

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Sunday, February 22, 2009

February 22, 2008

     A Harris poll last month asked Americans, "Whom do you admire enough to call a hero?"  The winner:  Barack Obama.  Well, no.
     My elderly dictionary says a hero is a legendary figure of great strength or ability, or an illustrious warrior.  President Obama has never been to war, and while he may have great strength or ability, his presidency Is just beginning and we don't know yet if he does.
     The poll lists one legitimate hero, the US Airways pilot who landed his jet in the Hudson River last month without the loss of a single life.  But George W. Bush, who I think was the worst president of my lifetime, finished fifth.  How can you possible justify that?  Mother Teresa made the top ten.  That's okay, but she beat out God (I am not making this up), who finished eleventh, just ahead of Hillary Clinton.  Sarah Palin, in case you were wondering, was 21st.
     Polls don't really mean anything, of course.  It's not like an election, which has real consequences.  If people want to think George W. Bush is a hero, that's fine with me.  It proves either that Americans weren't paying attention during his presidency, or that we badly need to improve elementary school education in this country because people just don't know what the word "hero" means.  They're confusing it with "celebrity" maybe.  Mr. Bush is certainly one of those.    

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Friday, February 20, 2009

February 20, 2008

    Here we go again!   Pitchers and catchers and baseball clichés.  A sports writer noticing spiked shoes on top of street shoes in a rookie's locker--kid doesn't know how to arrange it yet--versus the neat order in the vet's locker next door.  There's the rookie next to the All-Star--do I speak to him, or let him go first?  There's the aging vet--no, they didn't make me any promises, I have to make the team just like anybody else.  There are the coaches and managers, some happy, some resigned.  I always remember Leo Durocher, years ago, watching the first workout of some expansion team and asking, after half an hour or so, "Can't anybody here play this game?"
    The Washington Nationals--worst record in baseball last year and don't bet against them to repeat--have something actually new this year--a scam which involved their paying over a million dollars to a Dominican kid who turns out to have lied about his name--I don't know why--and his age:  he was four years older than he told them.  Lots of shadowy figures in this--agents, Orson Wells types lurking in the shadows.  Can the kid play?  Who knows?  Will somebody go to jail? Quite possibly.
    Some things are more traditional--the New York Yankees have added a couple of superstars to their lineup.  Does that mean they'll win?  No, but they certainly might.
     And then we come to tradition--my team, the Chicago Cubs. They haven't won a World Series in more than a century, if you can imagine.  This year?  No way, man, no way.
     But what does it matter?  Baseball's back.   First exhibition games are next week. See you at the park.

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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

     How should we punish truly evil men?  The subject comes up because there's a hearing today preceding the trial of one of Cambodia's Khmer Rouge leaders, Kaing Guek Eav, alias Comrade Duch.  The Khmer Rouge controlled Cambodia in the 1970s and killed more than a million of its people.
     The New York Times has an op ed piece today by a man who was a prisoner in the camp Duch ran--Tuol Sleng in Phnom Penh.  The man, Francois Bizot, survived, obviously, but many others didn't.  He writes that Duch ordered the death penalty at least 12,380 times, and that when led to the scene of his crimes he said, "I ask your forgiveness--I know that you cannot forgive me, but I ask you to leave me the hope that you might."  Bizot writes that Duch then collapsed in tears.
    Well, maybe so.  But it's hard to forgive mass murder.  Should we kill him?  The Allies executed some war criminals after World War II.  Did it deter anything?  I doubt it;  we have certainly not been war-free nor atrocity-free since then.  The U.N. will not execute Duch.  Bizot writes that the only way to look at the torturer is to humanize him.  He was there and I was not, but I find that difficult.  There is good and evil in all of us, sure.  But that much evil?  I can't imagine ordering 12,000 deaths, can you?
     I think the simplest solution is just to lock him up for the rest of his life.  Serious detention--three meals a day but no books, no TV, no visitors.  Just a chance to think much about what he's done. 

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Sunday, February 15, 2009

February 15, 2009

     President Obama campaigned as someone who wanted to bring bipartisanship back to government.  His term hasn't started out that way--the stimulus bill passed with minimal Republican support, but that could change.
     Congress isn't used to bipartisanship.  It isn't used to being part of a movement for change either.  You'd have to go back to Watergate in the 1970s to find Congress really playing the lead in Washington.  But that could change too.
      I have no idea whether the stimulus bill will work.  But I do have a feeling that the country is ready for change, that Americans realize they're in trouble and want their government to try to make things better.  No more passivity in Congress, in Washington.  If that is the public mood, Congress will figure it out eventually.  And if some of Mr. Obama's initiatives seem to be working, Congressmen of both parties will want some of the credit, and so they'll give him some support. Republicans who want to keep their jobs will start voting for at least some of his proposals.
     And that would be interesting.  It would recall past Congresses that split, not on party lines but on issues--like civil rights in the 1960s, Vietnam in the 1970s--Democrats and Republicans on both sides of those issues--real debates, not just exercises in "party first."
     May not happen, of course.  But it might.  And wouldn't that make Washington a better place? .     

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Saturday, February 7, 2009

A pause

While his editor is away for a week, Mr. Morton will take a break from writing his column.
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Thursday, February 5, 2009

February 4, 2009

      The Vatican says a bishop who denied the Holocaust must recant before being fully readmitted as a bishop in the Roman Catholic Church.  There are a lot of interesting, complex theological questions.  In the Middle Ages scholars argued over how many angels could dance in the head of a pin.  Were they corporeal?  You get the idea.  This one, on the other hand, is an absolute no-brainer. 
     The Holocaust is not ancient history.  It happened in my lifetime.  Adolf Hitler's Nazi regime in Germany arrested, imprisoned and killed millions of Jews--six million is the figure usually used.  I'm in my seventies and I am old enough to remember meeting people with numbers tattooed on their arms--ID numbers they had been given at the camps.
     I've been to Auschwitz, where ghosts whisper to you as you walk and your eyes grow very wide.  I remember the ovens.  I remember a building full, very full, of shoes.
    I remember an American World War II vet I interviewed saying, "I was pretty callous. I could sit on a corpse and east a C-rations.  But when we got to the camps and I saw what I saw, I wept." This isn't doctrine or philosophy folks.  It's history and some of it is still alive. 
     I don't know what got into Bishop Richard Williamson, the non-believer in the Holocaust, but he must be one of God's most credulous and naive creatures.  It happened, Bishop.  Read a book.  Open your eyes.  And pray for enlightenment, a little truth about just how awful humankind can be.  

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Wednesday, February 4, 2009

February 3, 2009

     It was dramatic, back during the campaign.  Remember?  "Our leaders have thrown open the doors of Congress and the White House to an army of Washington lobbyists who have turned our government into a game only they can afford to play."  The new guy was going to "clean up both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue" with "the most sweeping reform in history."  Well, hold on a minute.  There's still some dirt on the street.
     Lobbyists couldn't join agencies they'd lobbied for two years, the reformer said.  But he hired William Lynn to work at the Pentagon, and Lynn recently lobbied for Raytheon, a military contractor.  And William Carr, hired at Health and Human Services, lobbied last year as an anti-tobacco advocate.  Former Senator Warren Rudman, a New Hampshire Republican, noted,  "Sometimes you can over-promise.  Often you'll need people with a lot of experience in certain areas."  Good point. Then there's Tom Daschle, former Senate majority leader and never a lobbyist.  But it turns out Daschcle did accept fees and favors for giving advice to companies.  He failed, reports say, to pay taxes on some $ 255,000 over three years, primarily for the use of a car and driver when he was here.  He says that was inadvertent, though that's a lot of money not to have noticed.  He's paid up now.
     To be fair, I should add that when I sometimes covered the Senate years ago, when Daschle was a member, his reputation was squeaky clean.  Some senators, Senator Chris Dodd's father Tom for one, did have financial problems.  Not Daschle.  Still, that was then, and this week's headlines don't read that nicely.
     What do we learn from all this?  That Washington is a clubby place, where lots of politicians have friends in common, know people who know each other, and so on.  Having a staff or colleagues who are totally not part of this is, I think, impossible.  Some conflicts will always exist. We don't know enough yet about the Obama adminstrstion to judge it in this area.
     The old days were simpler.  I remember one day in the House, when the count was going wrong, Democratic leader Lyndon Johnson bellowing at a Republican colleague, "Change your vote.!"  The colleague did.  No money changed hands.  A little clout, maybe a lot, but no cash.

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