Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Presidential precedent

Not since James Buchanan, in 1861, has a president slunk into a well-deserved ignominy with the passivity (not to mention incompetence) of George W. Bush.

Great expectations

In the 210 years of the American presidency, only two new presidents have arguably faced challenges of the magnitude that confronts Barack Obama: Lincoln and FDR. Yet Obama may be subject to higher expectations than either of those legendary predecessors. When Lincoln acceded to the presidency as the union threatened to dissolve, he did so largely thanks to a schism among the Democrats. The Great Emancipator was thought by many to be a lucky beneficiary of the crisis that did in his opponents; few gave him credit for a masterful campaign. For many months after he entered the White House, the weight of "informed" opinion continued to underestimate him.

FDR was the subject of great hopes, but no one could have expected him to perform as he did, not least because no government in the history of the world had ever acted on such a scale or with so much sustained energy as America (and the world) saw during Roosevelt's four terms. Notably, Roosevelt in office was far more innovative and energetic than FDR the candidate had suggested he would be.

Obama suffers--yes, suffers--because he has predecessors such as Roosevelt and Lincoln. I have suggested, only half in jest, that every 150 years or so the nation needs a tall, skinny guy from Illinois. The challenges that we must meet now are easily analogized to those of 1933. But unlike FDR and Lincoln, we have the example of those great forebears with which to compare Barack Obama. (I am not aware that FDR was widely compared with Lincoln in 1932 or 1933; the crises that contronted the two men were almost entirely different.)

The presidency is a crushing burden. The expectations that confront Obama can only make it more so. Let's hope and even pray (even if you are not religious, dear reader, what could it hurt?) that our forty-fourth President can stand up and ever excel, under the pressure.

Clean coal

The New York Times reports that the power plant that used the coal-ash reservoir that collapsed in Tennessee last week deposited more than 2.2 million pounds of toxic material in a single year, including "45,000 pounds of arsenic, 49,000 pounds of lead, 1.4 million pounds of barium, 91,000 pounds of chromium and 140,000 pounds of manganese." The Times notes that, "Those metals can cause cancer, liver damage and neurological complications, among other health problems."

The story also points out that the reservoir contained many decades' worth of such poisons.

Now, what was that about coal being clean energy?

Three weeks

Three weeks from now, at noon on January 20th, Barack Obama will become President. (Under the Twentieth Amendment, it is the clock, not the oath of office, and makes a President.)

Is it just me, or do the days seem to be crawling by?

Sunday, December 28, 2008

In proportion

In The American President, Michael Douglas' character is advised that a military response to a Libyan attack on an American military mission to Israel is "proportional." He replies something along the lines of, "Someday, someone is going to have to tell me the value of a proportional response."

Israel's response to rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip has been notably disproportionate. I suggest that that is the right course for Israel to take.

Palestinian rocket attacks were renewed after a 6-month cease-fire between Israel and Hamas expired last week. While a number of authorities have suggested that both sides need a renewed cessation of hostilities, Palestinian forces opened a renewed fusillade within days.

This writer favored the unconditional Israeli evacuation of Gaza. I did not foresee--as the Israelis did not--that Hamas would monopolize Gaza, and that it would continue its unconditional refusal to recognize Israeli existence.

Many would suggest that Israel react to the renewal of Palestinian rocket fire--notably ineffective, given its volume--through limited responses aimed mainly at those who set off the missiles, with occasional strikes at specific leaders among Hamas and its allies. The trouble with that approach is that it does not work and, worse, that the "collateral damage" from such attacks arouses hostility among Palestinians and across the Arab world.

What to do? Should Israel ignore the attacks from Gaza? It is tempting to say yes, that the cost--a life here, damaged businesses there, some thousands of civilians suffering from PTSD or something like it--is not so great as to require response. Such thinking lacks intellectual discipline.

Hamas and its ilk do not simply oppose Israeli policy--they seek the destruction of the State of Israel. Perhaps they do not desire the extinction of Israelis (at least Jewish Israelis), but perhaps they do. In any event, it is clear that if Israel were to collapse many thousands--and perhaps many tens of thousands--of its citizens would die, and that the rest would be rendered destitute refugees in a diaspora that would dwarf the one in the Bible.

A "proportionate" response would do nothing to discourage further attacks on Israel. It would do nothing to keep Hamas and its allies from developing more deadly weapons, as they have already begun to do.

There is no guaranty that Israel's massive attack (which has continued today) will change Hamas' mind about its ultimate aims, or even its tactics. But nothing else has worked, and by bringing disproportionate damage to its enemies, Israel might--just might--begin to convince ordinary Gazans that Hamas' methods, if not its ultimate ambitions, are not worth the cost. Hamas is anything but democratic, but eventually even it must listen to those it seeks to govern.

Is it tragic that innocent people will die? Yes. But it is no more tragic if they are Palestinians than Israelis and, given that, tactics most likely (even if "most likely" is still considerably less than probably) to change Hamas' behavior are the right ones to use.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Obama's first mistake?

In choosing evangelical pastor Rick Warren to provide the invocation at his Inauguration, President-Elect Obama (we need to keep saying "President-Elect Obama" to make it easier to get used to saying "President Obama") made a real mistake. Is it his first? Given the way the team he has assembled so far looks, it might well be, although the proof of that pudding will be in the eating.

The mistake in picking Warren is not in angering part of the President-Elect's base. That may even be politically wise. The error lies in giving a place of honor at a major public event to a man who espouses bigotry against a substantial group of Americans, and a group that has suffered and still suffers from prejudice. As more than one observer has noted, if Warren preached anti-Semitism or anti-Catholicism with the virulence that he shows toward gays and non-believers, having him appear at the Inauguration would not even been considered. Indeed, he wouldn't even be invited.

Franken on the verge of victory?

As the Minnesota Canvassing Board reviews challenged ballots, Norm Coleman's (R.MN) lead has dropped in 24 hours from 358 votes to a mere 5.

Is this the end of the road for Democratic turncoat Coleman? Probably not, although things look a lot better for Franken than they did last week. To be frank, the whole process is mystifying to TONE (who hasn't followed it the way he did the hanging chads of Florida), but we understand that the race is probably going to be decided in court.

I said from the beginning that Franken's slogan should have been, "Send a real comedian to the Senate."

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The schnorrer

The present economic malaise has led me to remember an old story about a schnorrer. A schnorrer (the word, being transliterated from Yiddish, is usually spelled "sch," but pronounced with a soft "sh" sound, like "shoe") was a beggar in the world of Eastern European Jews. Unlike mendicants of other cultures, however, the schnorrer was not an abject figure. No, he had pride, even chutzpah.

In Judaism, tzedakah, charity, is one of the greatest mitzvot (blessings) that Jew can perform.
Because of this, the schnorrer and his more prosperous co-religionists in the ghettos and the shtetl (the villages of the Pale, the part of the Russian Empire where Jews were allowed to live legally) developed a symbiotic relationship. The schnorrer depended on the generosity of those who could afford to give, while he made it convenient for them to perform tzedakah, often by making regular calls.

The story is told of the schnorrer who makes his weekly visit to the home of a merchant. Knocking at the back door, he is handed a coin. "Five kopecks? Last week you gave me ten kopecks."

"I'm sorry," says the merchant. "I had a bad week"

"Nu? You had a bad week, I should suffer?"

The financial crisis in a nutshell

So I got some checks mixed up, and put one intended for a bank account in the envelope to my health insurer. And the health-insurance payment? You guessed it, it went into the bank

So, what happened? Neither my bank or the insurer (or its bank) caught the errors. The checks were processed and paid even though the money went into accounts unrelated to the payees on them.

And you wonder why banks are in trouble?


The demands of work and a lack of energy has led to an unanticipated vacation, but TONE is back, although we can't promise to post as frequently as in the past.

Monday, December 01, 2008

"Seven nays, one aye....

...the ayes have it." So Abraham Lincoln is reported to have counted the votes at a cabinet meeting. His, of course, was the only "aye."

This story came to mind as I heard about the Obama supporters who complain that he has been appointing old Clinton hands to his economic team. Now he has announced a Clinton and a couple of Republicans among his national-security appointments.

President-Elect Obama knows his history. He knows that the cabinet and White House staff carry out the President's directive. And he is strong enough to know that he can dismiss those who go off on their own. Is there risk that President Obama's policy will be undermined? Yes. But given the challenges that we face as the new administration takes office, experience seems like a better bet than ideological purity.

Most interesting (or something) news headline of the week

From the Yahoo home page this morning:

Calif. woman claims to see the Virgin Mary in salsa splatter