Saturday, December 29, 2007

The messy reality

Since 9/11, we've seen a great increase in security-consciousness. Some of this has led to real security improvements, but much of it to steps that merely present the appearance of security.

Among the latter are those desks in the lobbies of large buildings, where you have to present your license and perhaps even have someone in the building vouch that, indeed, you have an appointment. So if I were a terrorist, all I would have to do is to make an appointment under an assumed name, present fraudulent identification--to security guards with no training in discerning forgeries--then go up to the office where I've made the appointment, ask for the men's room key, leave the bomb there and go back down in the elevator. If I'm willing to commit suicide, it will be even easier.

At Jet Lagged, the NYT blog on air travel, Patrick Smith does a wonderful job of exposing the absurdities of what passes for security in the air. Take a look.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Agents of change

The Democratic race has come down to arguments about which of the leading candidates is the true agent of change, with Obama, Clinton and Edwards fighting over the title.

What seems missing from the coverage is a consideration of what kind of change the contestants propose. If we listen to what they are saying and how they are saying it, we find that each of the leading candidates has a different kind of change in mind.

For Hillary Clinton, change is programmatic: national health insurance, pre-kindergarten for all children, etc., etc. If there is an over-arching vision of the relationship between citizen and government, it's not very apparent. Clinton intends voters to believe that she has learned her lesson from past battles, that she can be more effective as President than she and her husband were in many of the same fights in the 1990s, but the unstated premise is that no basic change in the nature of our politics is required. (Let me add that I believe that Ms. (or is it Mrs.?) Clinton is probably right; for a whole raft of reasons, she probably does have a much better shot at getting large programs like national health insurance through now than Bill did during his two terms.)

John Edwards has been espousing a program that, in most essentials, would have been familiar to populists a century ago. (The old populism contained a racist and nativist streak that is absent from Edwards' liberal version; his platform is reminiscent of Fred Harris' New Populism of 1976.) While Edwards is trying to construct an alliance between middle- and working-class Americans, he is not doing so explicitly, contenting himself mainly with an attack on their common foes: big business and the wealthy. The weakness of this approach is that in America, where classes mix and meld almost imperceptibly, it may be hard to identify all but a few super-rich individuals as the enemy. The failure of populism in America--as of socialism-- has largely grown out of the fact that many of the middle and even working classes have allied themselves with the wealthy. Republicans have had success in using a "culture war" to attain such an alliance, but even without "social issues," many Americans believe that the people at the top deserve their positions, and also that they, themselves, might attain such heights. Back in the early 1970s, I spoke with people who wanted to limit the salaries that corporate executives could get; at that time, $250,000 per year was a fortune. I suggested that the obstacle they faced was that, even if the guy on the line at GM knew he would never be the company president, he was damned if he'd admit that his son couldn't be, and if his son made it, he didn't want the youngster's opportunity to be limited. Edwards does not seem to confront that reality.

Obama's call is for change of yet another sort: he seeks a way out of the sour partisanship that has divided the nation and paralyzed progress. While he has proposed programs that are similar to those of his rivals, the basis of his appeal is not specific proposals--some of which are less liberal than those of Clinton or Edwards--but to the idea that the American project can still work, that Americans can come together for the common good and that problems can be solved without playing one group off against another. In many ways, Obama invokes the spirit of JFK--a President who's most important contribution to the national discourse was to convince Americans that the government was their agent, and that the nation could do great things. Whether Obama can carry out that kind of change if elected is likely to depend as much on the size of the Democratic majority in Congress (both in terms of votes for his programs and as a symbol that political weight has shifted significantly leftward) as on his own qualities.

Which of these varieties of change is best for the nation? I'll leave that for you to judge.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

A Jew's Christmas

Christmas is one of my favorite times of the year, even though I, as a convinced if not observant Jew, do not accept the divinity of Jesus. Without the birth of the Messiah, what does a Jew find to love about Christmas?

It is, of course, the fact that the holiday involves so much love--love for one's family and love for the human family. Or, to put it in mundane terms, the Christmas spirit. Christmas is a time for thinking of others--the holiday when we learn that it really is better to give than to receive. (After all, when you are giving, you can spend days, weeks, even months [or in the case of a large number of guys, hours] thinking of how much the recipient will enjoy his or her gift. As the recipient, you get to unwrap the gift, look at it and, with the best will you can summon, say, "Oh, just what I wanted! Mittens.")

True, for Jews Christmas day can be an anti-climax, especially if you do not celebrate with Christian friends. On Christmas itself, all of that bothersome theology comes to the fore; it may remind us of the separation from our brothers and sisters that still exists. But I try to hold on to that Christmas spirit just a little longer, and hope that next year we may all be just a bit closer.

And so, to all of our readers--Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, Bahai, agnostic, atheist or whatever you faith or lack of faith in which you believe, a heartfelt Merry Christmas!

A thought for the holidays

Last year I suggested this as a thought for the holidays:

Only in America (as they used to say on the Lower East Side) would a Jew wish a Muslim "Merry Christmas!" and both of them smile at the thought.
In a case of life imitating blogs, this from Monday's NYT Metropolitan Diary (the best thing about the paper each week):

One of the perennial joys of the holiday season: the hearty good wishes for a very merry Christmas exchanged as my Jewish husband hands our Muslim doorman his year-end tip. Lisa Anderson

Thursday, December 20, 2007

It depends what you mean by "saw"

Mitt Romney has been telling people that he saw his father, George Romney, at one time Republican governor of Michigan and presidential candidate, march with Martin Luther King in a civil rights march in the Wolverine State. Only trouble is, apparently it didn't happen.

OK, so another political candidate has been caught blowing hot air. So what? I mean, it's not like sons don't make mistakes about things their fathers did 30 or 40 years ago. Mitt could have shrugged his shoulders, said he could have sworn he could remember it, and moved on. Most of us would have though no less of him over the incident. (Especially those of us who could hardly think less of him.)

But what does the Mittster do? In response to questions about the accuracy of his memory, he says that maybe he didn't mean that he literally saw what he said he saw: "If you look at the literature or look at the dictionary, the term 'saw' includes being aware of -- in the sense I've described."

Uh, huh.

Then the clincher: "When we say I saw the Patriots win the World Series, it doesn't necessarily mean you were there."

Memo to Mitt: The Patriots didn't win the World Series. That was the Red Sox. The Pats won the Super Bowl. So,I guess, if Mitt says he saw the Patriots win the World Series, we KNOW he wasn't there.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Campaign strategy

On Sunday's network news, I saw Hillary Clinton commenting on her endorsement by Iowa's leading newspaper, the Des Moines Record. Frankly, I thought that her reaction--she spoke slowly and without drive, and I thought she looked tired--did a lot to undermine the newspaper's pick. (I'm not going to go into the wingnuts' bitching about Hillary's looks; this is not something that's important--not like what the candidate says about an issue--just an observation.)

The Clinton campaign has her on a likeability tour--she's going across Iowa this week, showing her human side. I suppose it's a compliment that she no longer has to prove she's tough enough to be president, but I don't see Rudy or John McCain being called on to show their warm and fuzzy faces.

Selling a personal quality is done by example and demonstration, not by talking about it. As the old adage has it, "When a man tells you how honest he is, keep your hand on your billfold." By presenting the current tour as one designed to show Hillary's humanity, the campaign is actually sending the opposite message. Further, there's the matter of why she feels she needs to do this. Not only is she changing her message in mid-stream, but she runs the risk of validating the fatuous (and sexist) critique that says her human side is vital. If I were her adviser, I'd suggest that she tell the press and the voters, "This is who I am. If you don't like me, don't vote for me. "

Or is this just another example of the New York Senator's problem with genuineness?

While I'm ranting about the Clinton campaign, is it really a good idea for Bill to be so prominent in the campaign? Or does it undermine the message of change that has been his wife's theme recently? Do Democratic voters really want to go back to the '90's? Does having Bill front and center obscure who the candidate is, and is that something the Clinton camp should want? As you can probably tell, I don't think so.

Who is Paul Krugman, and why is he saying all of those terrible things about Barack Obama?

Renowned liberal stalwart and NYT columnist Paul Krugman has written no fewer than three columns trashing Barack Obama's health-care plan, and teed off again on the Illinois senator today, in an interview with TPM Election Central.

What gives?

It's not as if Krugman pretends that there is any great difference among the health-care plans proposed by the Democratic front-runners. As he noted on December 7th: "there is a huge divide between Republicans and Democrats on health care, and the Obama plan — although weaker than the Edwards or Clinton plans — is very much on the Democratic side of that divide."

Krugman is not the only one to assert that Obama's plan, which does not include mandated health care for all, is less comprehensive than the other Democrats. But it's a long stretch from that to concluding, as he did on Monday, that Obama is "the anti-change candidate." And to spend three of his valuable Times platforms attacking Obama is, well, strange.

Is this just a visceral dislike for Obama on Krugman's part? Does he covertly support another Democratic candidate? Either would be legitimate, but ought to be revealed. And Krugman should go on to other subjects.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Obama's new ad

Barack Obama did not get the endorsement of the Des Moines Register, but he's already got an ad running that takes on the candidate who did--without using any names--in part by using the Register's own comments. I don't know if the ad was in the works before the endorsement, but it is a strong answer to what the paper had to say (and also to Paul Krugman's attack on Obama today). Take a look:


TONE does not spend a lot of time critiquing journalism--maybe we should--but this one is too good to let pass by.

MSNBC has a page it calls First Read, which it bills as "The First place for key political news and analysis." A box entitled, "About First Read," leads with, "First Read is an analysis of the day's political news, from the NBC News political unit." So it's not pretending to be a spur-of-the-moment blog.

OK, so this morning, they run a story headed, "Rep. (Steve) King endorses Romney," the first paragraph of the post reads:
And the endorsements keep coming... Congressman Steve King (R), one of Iowa's most strident critics of illegal immigration and a champion of the state's rural conservatives, has endorsed Romney. [Emphasis in original.]
No real news there. Except that when you get to the fourth paragraph you see,
*** UPDATE *** King just announced that he's supporting Thompson. Team Romney is in the back of the room looking bewildered. They were all here, leading all the press to conclude that it was an endorsement for Romney.
Huh? You mean that no one leaked to the press what the Congressman (R-IA) was going to say? Maybe the MSNBC reporter didn't get the phone call. Or did King mistake the Mittster for the guy who really was a TV star? This King--not to be confused with the bombastic Peter King (R-NY)-- is an anti-immigrant ranter, so maybe he meant to endorse Tom Tancredo.


Is it just me?

I watched two of the networks yesterday (CBS and ABC) to see how they played the Des Moines Register endorsement of Hillary Clinton, and what struck me was Hillary's manner in reacting to the news. She looked and sounded very tired. I don't know if she had something written out, but had trouble reading it, or if she was speaking off the cuff and choosing her words carefully, or whether something else was at work, but she struck me as lacking energy. I even wonder if that video cut could damage her as much as the endorsement might help; for once, she looked and sounded a lot older than Barack Obama and John Edwards, and not in a good way.

As regular readers will know, I do not favor Mrs. Clinton, so I'd be interested to hear the reactions of others who saw her statement.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

A great story

The lovely Diane put me on to a great story from the BBC, about a young French woman who came to Britain in 1940, determined to serve the Free French movement and repudiate France's surrender to the Nazis. Take a look.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Too early?

Has Mike Huckabee peaked too early? Hard to believe, with less than 3 weeks to the Iowa caucuses, but when there are a lot of skeletons in your closet, it doesn't take long for some of them to escape into public view. And in the Internet age, an hour is enough for the word to travel around the world. This week, the wonderful Gail Collins, in The NYT, and Dan Payne, in The Boston Globe, zeroed in on Huckabee. The items they write about--especially those involving cupidity and much more ideological rigidity than the former governor has shown on the stump--are very much at variance with the image Huckabee has worked to present.

Will such assaults puncture the Huckabee balloon? If he were a Democrat, I would say certainly, but with Republicans I'm not so sure. Look at it this way: the latest poll of New Hampshire Repubs I've seen gives Mitt Romney a 15-point lead. Now, these Granite Staters get Boston TV stations, see Boston news papers, and many of them work in Massachusetts. If they haven't figured out that the Mittster is a bad joke, it may show that Republicans embody a level of denial never before seen. Which might help to explain a) George W. Bush and b) the looming disaster that the GOP is about to experience.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Least surprising conclusion of the week

From a Concord Monitor story on a new poll that shows Obama with a statistically-insignificant lead over Clinton in New Hampshire:

The poll suggests that the Democratic race could hinge on the turnout of undeclared voters, who aren't registered with either political party.

Duh-uh. The New Hampshire primary always hinges on the undeclared voters. And every four years, we get stories like this one, which pretend to present news. They are perennials, just like the articles that predict the race will get tighter as election day nears.

What is it they say about news? It's not when dog bites man?

(Whenever I hear a commentator or, better yet, the coach asked, "What is the key to this game?", I always hope that the retort will be, "Scoring more points than the other team.")

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Past transgressions

The co-chair of Hillary Clinton's New Hampshire campaign says that Barack Obama's past drug use (in high school, and something he's freely talked about for a long time) will be used by the GOP candidate if Obama is nominated.

That may well be true, but what's getting most attention is that it looks like Hillary is getting desperate. (Perhaps with good reason; a Rasmussen poll has her behind Obama in NH.)

Ironically, the story broke the day after Bush acknowledged that he was addicted to alcohol.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

How strange are they?

A lot of Americans think of Canadians as basically American, but a little different. For most people in the US, Canadians (except for those few with a noticeable French-Canadian accent) speak a variety of English all but indistinguishable from our own. (It is not, actually, indistinguishable, but Americans are famously insensitive to all but the strongest accents.) They like baseball. They play hockey (Americans are often astonished to discover that Canadians INVENTED hockey). They play a variety of football that is instantly recognizable, if slightly different, from ours. They call soccer, well, soccer. They drive cars that look like the ones we drive. Including big SUVs and such. The celebrate Thanksgiving, even if they do schedule it in October.

Every once in a while, however, we get a wake-up call, a reminder that Canada really is a foreign land.

Consider this, from The New York Times: Canadian police have filed criminal charges against Larry O'Brien, the mayor of Ottawa, accusing him of offering a payoff to an opponent if the man would drop a run for office. Now here's the really strange part: "Legal scholars said Mr. O’Brien appeared to be the first mayor in modern Canadian history to face criminal charges related to his office."


The tools of sin

Thanks to Barry Roseman of NELA (the National Association of Employment Lawyers) for this one:
"Sin has many tools, but a lie is the handle which fits them all."

Oliver Wendell Holmes

Monday, December 10, 2007


That's what the Obama campaign is calling the whirlwind of appearances by Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey. In toto, 60,000 people saw the duo (with, let's not forget, Obama's dynamic wife, Michelle). In South Carolina there were 30,000 people at the University of South Carolina football stadium--the largest political rally in SC history, at least since Fort Sumter.

I thought that Oprah showed the secret of her authority when she told the audience, "I am not telling you what to think, I am asking you to think about Barack Obama." It is the essential honesty of that appeal that distinguishes her from most of those on talk TV and radio.

The debate over whether Oprah's unique position in American life will translate into votes for Obama is obscuring what is likely to be the most important fact about this weekend's tour: the way it dovetailed with Obama's rise in the polls, and in the nature of the coverage he's been receiving.

Scared yet?

No? Take a look:

The voter has spoken

A comment on TCM Election Central:

I want to be non partisan and just elect a nice person.

So it comes down to Obama or Huckabee.

I am leaning to Huckabee because of his experience. I even have a fem democratic friends who are leaning towards him.

It's a hard choice though.

Restores your faith in democracy, doesn't it?

So, which poll d'you believe?

We're already knee-deep in the presidential silly season. Polls proliferate; you can find a poll that shows Obama ahead in Iowa by more than the margin of error, and one showing Clinton still up by a few points.

And you can find competing polls on whether Hillary Clinton is running the most positive or the most negative campaign.

About all you can't find is a poll that tells us why we should care about whether Hillary's campaign is positive or negative.

Friday, December 07, 2007

What will they do?

The revelation that the CIA destroyed videotapes that may have shown agency employees torturing prisoners (an act that seems to be clear obstruction of justice) ought to raise questions for the presidential candidates.

With thirteen months left in George W. Bush's time in office, it's clear that no movement to impeach him (with or without Deadeye Dick) is going to gather steam. The matter of prosecuting and punishing members of the administration for their apparent crimes will then pass to the new President and his appointees. So each candidate should be asked whether he or she will pledge to investigate high officials of this administration and, if the evidence warrants, prosecuting them for felonies such as obstruction of justice, perjury, conspiracy to commit those crimes, and other serious offenses under United States law.

From a narrow political perspective, Democrats would gain from Republicans dithering on the issue. "A [insert name of Republican candidate here] administration will continue the cover-up," would be a valuable talking point for Democrats. But on a larger scale, if the nation is to recover from the wounds to its essential constitutional fabric and the laws by which we are supposed to be governed, it is essential that the new President move aggressively to prosecute lawbreakers who operated under the cover of high office.

I am one of those people who believe that a person who violates an oath to uphold, protect and defend the Constitution is worse than a mere civilian who violates the law.

And, yes, I know that Bush can pardon his associates (can he pardon himself? an interesting question), but if he does that--a virtual admission of guilt, especially if it is clear that the incoming administration will conduct a thorough investigation--the new President should nonetheless seek to uncover the wrongdoing, so that the public may know the criminal acts that were carried out in its name.

The alternative--to declare that we must heal the wounds done by the Bush administration's mendacity--would not only cover the wrongdoing, but would facilitate further law breaking in the name of policy.

Wrong speech

Turns out, Mitt Romney gave the wrong speech. Instead of talking about Mormonism, of which he did precious little, he should have talked about lawn care and the presidency. Although now it turns out that the painters he hired to refinish his palatial home in Belmont, MA, this fall have been accused of employing unlawful immigrants, and the accusations surfaced as long ago as 2005, when they were on the front page of The Boston Globe. That was while Mitt was playing at being governor of Massachusetts.

Meanwhile, Romney is running TV ads telling voters how he'll get tough in unlawful immigrants.

Mitt Romney should not have felt that he had to give a speech about his religion. While candidates should be free to express faith--or the lack of it--no candidate should feel compelled to talk about the subject, much less to profess a particular faith or strand of faith. The theology in which candidates believe is irrelevant; what counts is what kind of people they are, and how they will behave in office. Romney has shown us what kind of man he is, and it has nothing to do with his faith.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

The Constitution on trial, again

(This post was begun 0n December 5th, but computer delayed prevented its posting.)

Yesterday, the Supreme Court heard arguments in Boumediene v. Bush, another case challenging the Bush administration's practice of ignoring the Constitution when it comes to the rights of prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay. (I do not meant to suggest that that is the only instance in which this administration ignores the basis for the American government.)

This time, the issue is whether Congress could constitutionally bar the "detainees" from the right of habeas corpus through sleight of hand: not by saying that the right to the Great Writ is withdrawn, but by precluding courts from hearing such claims. It is hard to believe that this can be seriously argued: the Constitution says that Congress may suspend habeas rights only in times of insurrection or invasion. Preventing the courts from hearing cases involving rights is no different, in any meaningful way, from simply denying those rights.

The case for the petitioners--37 detainees--as argued by Seth Waxman. You can hear the argument on Oyez.

The essential point that Waxman made was that if the territory at Guantanamo Bay is not governed by American law, then it is a lawless territory. This is not quite my formulation, which is that the government was created by the Constitution, and thus must act under the Constitution at all times and in all places, but it is close enough for present purposes.

Boumediene is being argued against yet another constitutional outrage: the decision of a military judge that defense lawyers for Omar Ahmed Kahdr may not tell him the identity of some of the witnesses against him. Forget the Sixth Amendment, a model of legal clarity:
In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial...and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.
But the Constitution does not mean miuch to this administration; it is an inconvenience or, at most, an excuse.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007


In the early days of Saturday Night Live's Weekend Update, Gilda Radner's character, Emily Litella, would regale us with a lecture against some perceived evil. Inevitably, she would turn out to have misunderstood a perfectly innocent remark (for instance, "Why is all this attention being paid to Soviet Jewelry?" when it was Soviet Jewry under discussion). At the climactic moment, anchorman Chevy Chase would interrupt to point out her error. To which, Ms. Litella would respond with her trademark, "Never mind."

I thought of Emily Litella yesterday, when the administration had to admit that--what do you know!--as best we can tell, the Iranians are NOT building nuclear weapons, after all.

The latest conclusion raises at least as many questions as it answers: were earlier intelligence estimates ginned up to support administration policy? Is the new estimate a reaction to the political tides that are turning strongly against another military adventure? Given the rampant misconduct of Bush, Cheney & Co. when it comes to national security, how can we trust that this NIE (National Intelligence Estimate) is the unvarnished professional opinion of our intelligence people, and that it was not adjusted for political ends?

And, finally, if this NIE is, indeed, the straight dope, the best judgment of our spies and analysts, what if it is wrong, nonetheless?

Monday, December 03, 2007

Coming apart?

Is the Clinton campaign showing signs of panic? Today, the campaign issued a statement assailing Barack Obama for allegedly saying that he had not been planning to run for President for a long time. What Obama is quoted by the Clinton campaign as saying is that he is "not running to fulfill some long held plans"--a not-very-veiled reference to Hillary Clinton herself (does her campaign really want to remind people of her career path?).

And what does the campaign marshal as evidence? Among the items--I kid you not--is that he told his kindergarten teacher that he wanted to be President. In second grade, he is said to have written an essay in which he wrote "I want to be a president." (The Senator, prescient beyond his years, might have been referring to the presidency of the Harvard Law Review, which he achieved in 1990.)

Then there was the forum in Iowa at which Clinton was booed yesterday--in contrast to the enthusiastic reception given to Edwards, Obama, Dodd and Kucinich.

A far cry from the inevitability mantra that the Clinton campaign was peddling for months, now the New York Senator is failing to show the composure that would be expected of a front-runner or, indeed, a serious contender.

Honestly, now...

...are you surprised?

From AP:

Japanese researchers pitted young chimps against human adults in two tests of short-term memory, and overall, the chimps won.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Ode to electability

Frank Rich has a paean to the electability of Barack Obama.
[M]uch like the Clinton campaign itself, the Republicans have fallen into a trap by continuing to cling to the Hillary-is- inevitable trope. They have not allowed themselves to think the unthinkable — that they might need a Plan B to go up against a candidate who is not she. It’s far from clear that they would remotely know how to construct a Plan B to counter Mr. Obama.
Rich's piece is complimented by a front-page piece in The Times, entitled, "Feminist Pitch by a Democrat Named Obama." Coupled with another poll showing the Illinois senator slightly ahead in Iowa, and one showing Hillary Clinton's lead in New Hampshire shrinking to 7 points, the inevitability of Clinton is yesterday's play book.

Yet even as he lauds Obama, Rich hints at the identity of the most electable Republican: Mike Huckabee.

While there have been reports of ethical problems during Huckabee's tenure in Arkansas, and criticism of his record on taxes from the Club for Growth, the former governor (and former fat man) would present a tough target for the Democrats. For one thing, not having been in Washington, he's not saddled with the baggage of Bush, Cheney & Co. While he is both a political and a Christian conservative, Huckabee seems to be miles away from the smarmy, nasty politics of Karl Rove. While his tax policy is nutty--he wants to do away with the income tax and replace it with a national sales tax--that's not an issue that Democrats want to fight about (it's too likely to revivify the image of tax-and-spend, even if the discussion is about the nature of taxes, not their level). And Huckabee is a nice guy, with a good, and often pointed, sense of humor. For instance, he calls the Club for Growth, the "Club for Greed," which is not only funny, but happens to have the added advantage of being true.

Even as they work on beating each other Democrats should take a little time to think about how to beat Mike Huckabee.