Friday, January 23, 2009

Two nations, separated by a common language

Sarah Lyall, NYT correspondent in Blighty, has one of the wittiest articles I've seen in years. (Warning: your editor has not grown entirely out of his sophomoric streak.)

(Have you noticed that even as newspapers struggle, the quality of writing and photography, at least in The New York Times, has grown markedly?)

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

And so the countdown begins

If you don't already feel a sense of urgency, think of this: The countdown on Barack Obama's time as President has already begun: Thanks to the 22nd (or XXIInd, if you prefer) Amendment, he is limited to no more than two terms. There's no time to lose!

Fortunately, there are a couple of signs of starting fast, even if they are steps that only start undoing the evils of the Bush administration. (Undoing the evils of the Bush years is a major task, on top of all the crises that face the new President.) Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel took time off from inaugural festivities to order that all pending regulations be stopped pending review, and the President found time to order that military prosecutors to seek 120-day continuances in all war-crimes cases at Guantanamo Bay.

And so the new age begins.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

A New Day Dawned at Noon

Something extraordinary happened today: a new day dawned at noon, when Barack Obama became the 44th President of the United States. The weather was cold, but clear and marvelously sunny; let us hope that that is an augury for the coming days. To call the sea of citizens in front of the Capitol huge would be a vast understatement; may that be a symbol of a basic unity among us--even as we furiously debate--in the challenging days ahead.

And may the new President's words inspire us, and the world:
I stand here today humbled by the task before us, grateful for the trust you have bestowed, mindful of the sacrifices borne by our ancestors.

Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this, America - they will be met.

On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.

On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics.

We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things. The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.


Now, there are some who question the scale of our ambitions - who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans. Their memories are short. For they have forgotten what this country has already done; what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose, and necessity to courage.

What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them - that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply.


For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus - and non-believers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.

Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends - hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism - these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history. What is demanded then is a return to these truths. What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility - a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.

So let us mark this day with remembrance, of who we are and how far we have traveled. In the year of America’s birth, in the coldest of months, a small band of patriots huddled by dying campfires on the shores of an icy river. The capital was abandoned. The enemy was advancing. The snow was stained with blood. At a moment when the outcome of our revolution was most in doubt, the father of our nation ordered these words be read to the people:

“Let it be told to the future world…that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive…that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet [it].“

America. In the face of our common dangers, in this winter of our hardship, let us remember these timeless words. With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come. Let it be said by our children’s children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God’s grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.

Now, the work begins.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Transition trivia

It is the clock, not the oath, that will make Barack Obama President tomorrow. Under the Twentieth Amendment (or the XXth, if you prefer), the term of the outgoing president ends at noon on January 20th. As there can be no vacancy in the office, Barack Obama will then succeed to the office whether or not he has been sworn in.

One day!

As I write this, there are fewer than 24 hours until Barack Obama becomes the 44th President of the United States. And less than 24 hours until George W. Bush leaves office!

The horizon is stormy and fog surrounds us, but truly a new day is dawning!

This Land is Your Land

If I were the producer, yesterday's concert would have closed with This Land is Your Land. Yet I never expected that; I know how out of touch I am with popular taste. How perfect for me, then, that Obama's remarks should be followed with that anthem to the American people; even better that it brought us Pete Seeger--even if he was only speaking the verses--and Bruce Springstein. And how suprising--perhaps shocking--to hear them sing the verse that goes:
As I was walkin'  -  I saw a sign there
And that sign said - no tress passin'
But on the other side .... it didn't say nothin!
Now that side was made for you and me!

I confess that there were tears in my eyes, and some of them
escaped down my cheeks. This Land is not merely Woody
Guthrie's great anthem, a remembrance of the folk music revival
of the 1960's, it was also the theme song of Fred Harri's New
Populist campaign in 1976--a time when we true believers
thought we would change the world. The song represents the
best of my past, and a hope for the future.

A thought

Barack Obama's brief remarks at yesterday's concert at the Lincoln Memorial were better than anything George W. Bush said in eight years in office.

National day of service

As you probably know, President-Elect Obama has designated today as a National Day of Service, and asked Americans to volunteer at a local community-service agency for the day. This is a good and noble idea, more for the intent it shows and the possibility that some of us will find today a springboard into serving our fellows than for useful work that will be done.

Having said that, I am at my office today. Why? For one thing, I am working on Martin Luther King Day so that I may take tomorrow off to celebrate the fruition of his dream. Also, most of my law practice is devoted to furthering the civil rights of employees, so I think it is fair to say that in some sense most of my work is devoted to serving the community. I am reminded of the story of the French knight who implored a Spaniard to go on crusade to the Holy Land. Thinking of the constant struggle against the Moors, the Spaniard replied, "We are always on crusade; we do our part."

(For those who take issue with the idea of equating a crusade for a particular religion with equal rights for all, as Lincoln said, we know what is right only "as God gives us to see the right.")

Friday, January 16, 2009

Andrew Wyeth

Dean of American painters, dies at 91.

A righteous war

“It is a very righteous war and has the full support of public opinion," said the chief rabbi if Israel's military, quoted in today's New York Times.

No, rabbi, it isn't. Not even for those of us who support the necessity of the Israeli offensive. There are no righteous wars. There are necessary wars, even just wars and, as Americans well know, there are unnecessary wars. But let us never confuse the killing of human beings in armed conflicts with righteousness.

(For an incisive analysis of Israeli policy and goals, see Tom Friedman's piece in the Times from a few days ago.)

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

From a friend

Profiles in courage

From today's NYT:
One morning two months ago, Shamsia Husseini and her sister were walking through the muddy streets to the local girls school when a man pulled alongside them on a motorcycle and posed what seemed like an ordinary question.
“Are you going to school?”

Then the man pulled Shamsia’s burqa from her head and sprayed her face with burning acid. Scars, jagged and discolored, now spread across Shamsia’s eyelids and most of her left cheek. These days, her vision goes blurry, making it hard for her to read.

But if the acid attack against Shamsia and 14 others — students and teachers — was meant to terrorize the girls into staying home, it appears to have completely failed.

Today, nearly all of the wounded girls are back at the Mirwais School for Girls, including even Shamsia, whose face was so badly burned that she had to be sent abroad for treatment. Perhaps even more remarkable, nearly every other female student in this deeply conservative community has returned as well — about 1,300 in all.
Read the rest of the story, which includes a photograph of Shamsia.

Some people have said that I showed courage years ago when I started my own law practice, and for taking on large companies in court and the US government in representing a couple of Guantanamo detainees. Nothing I have done is worth a fig compared to the daily bravery of those school girls and their families in a remote Afghan village--and of thousands of others prepared to resist the forces of ignorance and hate.

This page has criticized President-elect Obama's announced policy on Afghanistan, but let's all be clear that the goal of helping Afghans to move their nation out of the twelfth century--not to our vision of the twenty-first, but to theirs--remains worthwhile, even necessary. The debate ought to be about how we can do it.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Justice takes another hit

The judge has declined to revoke Bernie Madoff's bail.

One law for the rich (or the formerly rich) and socially prominent, one law for the poor and obscure.

Just a thought

If someone offers a bribe to the President for a pardon, and the President issues the pardon, is the briber home free?

(Now, why would this thought come to me now? I wonder.)

Is this really necessary?

AP is reporting that the Army's general in charge of the Army Recruiting Command wants to set up a fat farm for overweight recruits to slim down to Army standards.

Excuse me, but Huh?!? Isn't the function of basic training to get recruits into shape? If they arrive overweight, assign them to more marches. If a recruit comes in overweight, maybe add and extra week to basic so he (or she) can do some more hoofing across open ground. Adding a few more pounds to the pack will also help.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Another take

Over the weekend, I suggested that the Senate should seat Roland Burris as the junior senator from Illinois. Yesterday, a friend pointed me to an article in Slate by Akhil Reed Amar and Josh Chafetz, from Yale and Cornell Law Schools respectively, making the case for the Senate's right to keep Burris out.

I'm not sure that I'm convinced that the Senate should keep Burris out, but I find the following reasoning in the article to be persuasive (although perhaps not completely) of the power to do so:
But imagine if Burris had won election only because other candidates were wrongly and corruptly kept off the ballot. Surely the Senate could properly deem this an invalid election. Similarly, it now seems apparent that there were candidates that Blagojevich refused to consider for improper reasons—because one refused to "pay to play" early on, or because another is at the center of the impending criminal case against the governor. With the appointments process so inherently and irremediably tainted, the Senate may properly decide that nothing good can come from a Blagojevich appointment.
(Etymological question: Should we say that an article appears in and online publication like Slate, or on it?)

And now for something completely different.

The most beautiful automobile ever built: the Bugatti Type 57sc Atlantique coupe:

For more, check out Jay Leno's fascinating description of his Type 57sc.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Ave atque vale

Obituaries of people you might not know, who made a difference and lived lives that provide lessons for the rest of us:

Victor Krulak, Marine's marine (all 5'4" of him), whose intelligence and persistence led to the landing craft that made victory in WWII possible. He also had a formula that might actually have defeated the Communists in Vietnam.

Nick Scandone, winner of a gold medal in sailing at the Beijing paralympics just a few months ago, even as he was in the last stages of ALS. All I know about him is in his obituary, but from that I would say that he deserves to rank with the great deep-water sailors (Joshua Slocum, Dennis Connor) that we celebrate.

The limits of bipartisanship

All very well to speak about moving beyond partisanship, but there are costs to doing so, and they are becoming apparent in the debate over an economic stimulus package, oops, the American Reinvestment and Recovery Plan.

Republicans are applauding the President-Elect's tax-cutting proposals (which fit in with the anti-government mantra that still paralyzes the GOP), but in a posture that gives new meaning to the term chutzpah, are already carping at the size of the overall package. This from the people who kept all that spending on the Iraq rat-hole "off-budget," so they could pretend it didn't exist.

If, for the sake of bipartisanship, the new administration trims the size of the stimulus, uh ARRP, package, that will be a serious mistake. (Paul Krugman had a very good take on this yesterday.) And to what purpose would Obama do this? If the economy continues to go downhill--which too small a stimulus will make much more likely--will Republicans take any part of the blame? Do I have to answer that one for you?

If the minority party is not willing to stand up and support steps necessary to save the nation from economic calamity, then it should be left in the dust.

(In practical terms the Democratic majority is large enough so that Obama and the House and Senate leadership need not pay much mind to the Republican leadership. I do not suggest openly dissing McConnell, Boehner and the others--although the impulse to do so on general principles is almost overwhelming--but they well know that some of the rank-and-file will support almost any plan that the new President puts forward. In the Senate, in particular, it is hard to see every "moderate" Republican supporting a filibuster over the stimulus package, which is what would be needed to block it.)

Spooky stuff

The about-to-be-official appointment of Leon Panetta as CIA Director has surprised almost everyone in Washington. Josh Marshall has an excellent post on the appointment, with contributions from a couple of his readers, one a retired intelligence professional with a (to me, at least) surprising take.

One concern about Panetta: According to the Times, he's 70 years old.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Clear thinking, military style

One way to deal with shrinking in recruits: Accept heavier enlistees.


The latest figures of the Obama stimulus plan (we're not supposed to call it that, it's now the American Reinvestment and Recovery Plan--ARRP; don't confuse it with AARP) suggest that it will be less than $750 billion. A lot of money--inconceivable before the recent giveaway of a cool trillion to the bankers and brokers. I'm not economist, but from what I've heard, the great danger is not that we shall spend too much on priming the pump, but not enough. This is a time to think big, and I hope that the size of the program will grow, not shrink. This will be the first test of Obama's presidential (not political) acumen.
Last week I heard a debate over the stimulus on NPR. One economist took the Keynesian position that we need government to step in, because no one else is spending or investing. The other espoused the view that private decisions about spending are better than choices made by government.

Generally, the second view is correct, but that is like saying that generally people like sunny weather more than rainy days; we all know that we need the rain. Surely the present crisis was caused by private decisions. And we know something about how to use government dollars to promote economic growth.

But the real fallacy in the free-market approach lies in the question of timing. If they are honest, enthusiasts of laissez-faire economics tell us that the market will right thing over time. True, but time is the problem. People are suffering now. As John Maynard Keynes noted, in perhaps his most brilliant pronouncement, "In the long run, we are all dead."

The toll rises

The Times contains a news analysis suggesting that the Israeli attack on Gaza was timed because of the imminent (not imminent enough) departure of President Bush, a very, very staunch ally. While President-elect Obama has said good things about Israel and many of his advisers have solid records on Middle East issues, the Israelis were, according to Scott Shane, not willing to wait for the reaction of the new administration.

I can well understand such reasoning. What I fear is that political considerations arising from next month's Israeli elections may also be at work. More specifically, I worry that the need to be tough (Polls have had the Likud party of Benyamin Natanyahu--Israel's answer to George W. Bush--leading) will lead the current government to prolong military action beyond the point where it is worthwhile. If a political leader has any sensitivity, the calculation of when the benefits of war justify the human cost is always hellish, but when politics puts the thumb of self-interest on the scale, the computation becomes even more grotesque and, in most cases, less humane.

A final thought, generated by the protests against Israel's actions: "War is war and not popularity seeking." Thus William Tecumseh Sherman, who had reason to know. Sherman, widely accounted the greatest general of a war known for superb commanders, was right. Hamas and other intransigent enemies of Israel wanted war. Now they have it. As the Bible tells us, "For they sow the wind And they reap the whirlwind."

What is the answer? Peace. Not an armed truce, except as a bridge to a permanent arrangement. And until Hamas and its allies accept that they need to work toward a true peace, they will bring forth upon themselves and those whom they control all the evils of which Sherman spoke when he said, "War is all hell."

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Senatorial musings

Some thoughts on the three as-yet undecided Senate seats:

Democrats should reverse course and seat Roland Burris as the senator from Illinois; Burris should announce that he will not run for reelection in 2010. For all the apparent strength of the case against Illinois governor Ron Balagojevich (D), he has not been convicted of anything (indeed, there is some chance that he will not be, given the difficulty of proving cases involving political favor-trading). There is, as far as I know, no suspicion of anything untoward in Burris' background, his relationship with the governor or his appointment. Despite the unsavory atmosphere surrounding the appointment, if he is willing to serve under a cloud (and he certainly appears to be), he should be seated.

Democrats should not attempt to seat Al Franken until the process of law has worked its way out in Minnesota. Although Franken has "surged" to a lead of more than 200 votes, that is still and infinitesimal margin. Norm Coleman (R.MN--although his term expires tomorrow) has said he will go to court, as is his right. The Senate--that is, the Democratic caucus--should stand aside and let Minnesota decide the race, as it is entitled to do under the Constitution.

In New York, the candidacy of Caroline Kennedy has been talked up and talked down and, as of the past twenty-four hours, talked up again. Attractive as she is, picking her could engender not only talk of elitism among Democrats (the GOP is desperate for ANY point of leverage), but conflict between Gov. David Paterson (D) and many powerful political figures in New York, in all likelihood without gaining him a reputation for independence that he could use when he has to run in 2010. New York has many qualified candidates. One of them is Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D.NY). A lifelong Republican until her husband was killed in a massacre on the Long Island Railroad, she became a Democrat when Republicans would not support gun control. She has been an effective legislator, she knows her way around Washington, she is not one of the state's powerful political families, she's a woman, and she's not from New York City--all points in her favor. Paterson could do a lot worse--for the nation, the state, the Democratic Party and himself--than to pick her.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Happy new year

With so much bad news, it may be hard to view the coming year with optimism, but at least we have something from last year to cheer you up: