Saturday, September 27, 2008


Those of you who haven’t yet acquired Moses the Heretic – and yes, I realize that still refers to virtually everybody – would not yet know what, to me, is its most important page. It is the dedication page, which reads as follows: “To the Memory of Julius Bertram Spiro (1912-2002) – A free thinker. And the most humble man I’ve ever known.”

That page allows me to pay tribute to my beloved father, who has always represented my ethical role model. But just as importantly, it permits me to introduce the reader to something profound about Judaism. As the book goes on to say at page 299, “Moshe Rabbenu [which literally means “Moses, Our Rabbi”] is considered to have been the greatest of Jews precisely because he was supreme in his humility. The rabbis teach that others surpassed him in learning, but no one was more humble.” The funny thing is that I hadn’t learned that rabbinic teaching until I was an adolescent, and by then, I had already come to associate the characteristic of humility with the teachings of another famous Jew: Jesus of Nazareth. It seems that, at least in this one regard, Judaism and Christianity agree. And yet, when you think about the most visible leaders of the Jewish and Christian communities – the big machas, as my dad like to call them -- humility is among the last words you would use to describe them.

Growing up, my mom used to joke about my dad being a “nice Jewish boy” from a hick town, and having lived a parochial life as a child. His “town” is known to the world as Brooklyn, New York, and for some reason, my mother – who grew up in the Bronx, only a stone’s throw from Manhattan – thought of her own upbringing as more cosmopolitan. She loved to tell me that when my dad was 14, the farthest he had traveled from Brooklyn was Hicksville, Long Island. The two towns are less than 30 miles apart on the map, but they must have felt like light years’ apart to my father. For dad, Hicksville represented small town USA, an impression that was reinforced by its very name. Perhaps he was unaware that, to a large segment of the American population, Hicksville is just another part of the great-place-to-visit-but-you-wouldn’t-want-to-live-there megalopolis known as the New York Metropolitan Area.

I’ve been thinking a lot about small town USA lately thanks to our Presidential election campaign. My interest was piqued during the primaries when Joe Scarborough used his morning TV show to bash Barack Obama incessantly for not doing enough to “connect” with the so-called “Reagan Democrats.” I would listen to these voters rhapsodized as men and women who hailed from towns (small and large), as opposed to metropolitan areas, and who would ultimately decide the outcome of November’s election. Every day on the Morning Joe program, Scarborough would invite Patrick Buchanan and other guests to hail the importance of these critical “swing voters”: invariably, they were described as white, Anglo-Saxon, Christian (though they could be either Catholic or Protestant), gun toting, non-elitest, and patriotic. And just as often as they were romanticized over the airwaves, Barack Obama was mocked for his inability to gain their affection. They had become the heirs of Jefferson’s “yeoman farmers” – the class of Americans whom the Sage of Monticello most trusted to decide the outcome of American elections. Scarborough et al. were crystal clear in their message: these rural Americans are the most authentic representatives of our nation, and any road to the White House necessarily goes first and foremost through their towns.

Scarborough’s message bothered me, for it came across as divisive, anti-democratic, and bigoted. Well, strike that. It struck me as all those things, but perhaps also a fourth: accurate. No, I wasn’t suggesting that rural folk are somehow more authentic exemplars of the American spirit than people who hail from Brooklyn or the Bronx. God forbid would I ever suggest that. But the rural Americans do appear to hold in their hands the key to the White House, despite their relatively small numbers. If a Presidential candidate’s themes will “play in Peoria,” they will likely play well in New York or Chicago, but not necessarily vice verse. That explains why so many Presidents from Truman to Bush Jr. either hailed from rural America or would like to pretend that they did. That explains why, in the past 60 years, if you hoped to win the Presidency representing the political party of the cities (i.e., the Democratic Party), and you didn’t have the genius of a JFK, you had better bring your best bucolic banter. Barack is a brilliant orator, and a thoughtful man, but he is “no John F. Kennedy.” That has made me worry that he simply isn’t rural enough to be elected President as a Democrat.

Those worries didn’t exactly dissipate when Sarah Palin accepted her party’s nomination for Vice President. Palin’s speech was beautifully delivered and extremely shrewd in its content. And at the heart of the speech was a message that resonated throughout America: “I, Sarah Palin, will bring small town values to Washington.”

Palin was a proud as a peacock when she uttered the following words: “A writer observed: ‘We grow good people in our small towns, with honesty, sincerity, and dignity.’" Succinct. To the point. And completely consistent with the American myth that small town Americans are somehow more authentic than the rest of us. Sarah went on to tout herself as a fighter, a reformer, a profile in courage – in short, just the kind of hero who is ready and willing to shake things up in the reptilian city of Washington. Who among us was unmoved by her charms?

Well, my wife, for one.

Kathleen Adele Ketcham was born on April 30, 1959, nearly five years before Sarah Palin. She spent her entire childhood in the northeast Indiana town of Albion, Indiana, which was roughly 30 miles from Ft. Wayne. Albion is the seat of Noble County, but the town itself is so small that you could quadruple its population and it would still pale in comparison to Sarah’s Wassila. What’s more, I have visited Albion on numerous occasions since Kathy and I started dating and I have never seen anyone with skin as dark as mine. And I’m white.

Back in the 19th century, there was actually a community of Jews living in Noble County. They lived in a town called Ligonier, 12 miles west of Albion. But that community was long since gone by the time Kathy was born. In the last half-century, Noble County consisted solely of Protestants and Catholics, and her family attended the local Methodist church, which was right next door to her school. The school, of course, was public – Albion had no private schools, not even Catholic ones.

I knew that Kathy’s parents were Methodist when I first visited their house, but I didn’t know much about their political views. Then, I came across a rug in their bedroom draped over a cedar chest. It contained a large picture of an elephant and bore the inscription “This is Hoosier Country.” Could the elephant possibly be a reference to the Republican Party, I wondered? No, I decided – I was thinking too much like a politics-obsessed Washingtonian. Surely, the elephant must be some kind of state symbol.

Well, it’s a state symbol, alright. But only in the sense that for decades, the state has voted Republican. And yes, the rug was intended to reveal my in-laws’ political affiliations. Kathy’s dad was actively involved in Republican politics, her brother was a member of the local Teenage Republican club (the TARS, as they were known), and she herself also identified herself as a Republican. In fact, as a young child, my wife rode on the Republican float in the town parades and threw candy to the people who lined the streets.

So yes, Sarah Palin would have viewed Kathy as an authentic small town American.

Except, perhaps, for one thing – Kathy made the mistake of thinking for herself when it comes to the true spirit of religion. She must have noted that Jesus of Nazareth was a community organizer, not a governor. She must have recognized that Jesus hung out with prostitutes, spoke out for the needs of the poor, and called out the odds against rich people entering the Kingdom of Heaven. She must have found all sorts of tributes in the gospels to the ethos of peace, but precious few about the need to be victorious in bloody war. And she must have read Jesus’s words, memorialized in Chapter 13 of the First Letter of Paul to the Church at Corinth, that while faith is important, love is even “greater” and that love “is never boastful or conceited, it is never rude or selfish, it does not take offence, and is not resentful. Love takes no pleasure in other people’s sins but delights in the truth. It is always ready to excuse, to trust, to hope, and to endure whatever comes.”

Strange, but whenever I read about Jesus, I’m struck about how much that guy comes across as a lefty. Just like me. And just like most other Jews I’ve met. It seems that, as Christians like to say, “Jesus was [indeed] a Jew.”

My wife, as a child, read a lot. While the Sarah Palins of the world were figuring out how to become BWOCs (Big Women on Campus) at their local high schools, Kathy was hitting the books. It seems that, in her small town household, books were revered. And she was gifted with a good mind. So she became her school valedictorian. Then, like everyone else in her family, she went to her state college, Indiana University. It was at IU when she heard a speech given by a man who is surely known to Sarah Palin simply as a “loser.” His name was George McGovern. In listening to McGovern speak about the values of peace, service to the poor, and the need to fight bigotry and accept diversity, Kathy thought she was hearing a modern-day disciple of Jesus. Soon thereafter, she changed political affiliations.

I met Kathy when we were ILs together at Harvard Law School. She seemed somewhat out of place there. She not only hailed from a small town, but she didn’t seem especially full of herself or competitive. I’ll never forget how, before exams there, a guy would walk down the halls and say “Gentlemen, Start your Engines.” Well, that wasn’t Kathy. She tells me that when she enrolled, she had no particular passion to practice law. In fact, she didn’t even know why she went to law school except that a couple of her friends talked her into taking the LSAT and, without studying at all for it, she practically aced it. So she applied to Harvard, was accepted, and decided that enrolling there would be the sensible thing to do.

Kathy was a very successful lawyer for about seven years. Then, not surprisingly, she walked away from the profession for good. For the past several years, she has served as the Media Specialist at a public elementary school. That way, she can combine her love for books with her love for children, hopefully nurturing each of her students into becoming the same kind of thoughtful, compassionate person that she has always been and always will be.

I hope you can see by now that Kathy has never thrust aside the values that she learned in her small town. She attends religious services at least once a week and sings in the choir. There’s just one thing – the services she attends are Jewish services, and the language in which she sings, is Hebrew. But is that difference really so significant? The values espoused by our rabbi are hardly different from those found in the gospels. Indeed, anyone who studies the teachings of the great Rabbi Hillel, one of the leaders of the Pharisees in the decades before Jesus was born, will be struck by the similarities between Hillel’s ethical teachings and those of Jesus. It seems that Christianity has strayed from Judaism mainly in its metaphysical doctrines, and if you asked Kathy, she would tell you that she has studied the topic and has no confidence whatsoever that Jesus would adopt the metaphysical principles that have been advanced in his name.

When I think back about Sarah Palin’s “great” speech, certain lines offend me – the shot at community organizers, for one. But I can listen to Palin speak and nevertheless admire her for her spunk, self-confidence, and even her ambition. My wife seems to be a bit more cynical, which is odd because she is normally the more tolerant of the two of us. Clearly, something strikes her as very hypocritical about Palin cavorting around as a “small town hockey mom,” on the one hand, and a person qualified to be one heartbeat away from the Presidency, on the other.

I think it comes down to the value that my wife places on humility and its twin, modesty. When I look at Kathy, I see the same kind of person as my father. Both are very intelligent people, with hearts at least as big as their brains, and yet they also are sufficiently aware of what they DON’T know that they could never possibly boast about themselves in any way. Lord knows that they would never run for Vice President of the United States without a fundamental grounding in public policy issues, which Sarah Palin obviously does not begin to have. Of course, the difference is that neither my wife nor my father believe the nonsense that is peddled by extremists of all stripes that even a semi-literate representative of their own religious or political community is better suited to govern than one of the wisest exemplars of some “other” point of view. It’s just that attitude that has allowed Sarah Palin … and George W. Bush … to be so confident in their own gut instincts. Who needs books – who even needs reflection – when you are a conservative Christian and you have the teachings of your gut? That pretty much sums up the attitude of both our current President and the neophyte who could very possibly attain the Presidency in the next few years.

Like my dad, my wife has her opinions, but she doesn’t often preach them. In fact, she exudes the awareness that she may be wrong, for she is but a human being, and our minds are inherently limited and biased. It is precisely that perspective that allows her to be so tolerant of people who look different than she does, worship at a different church, and hail from a very different part of the country or world. My wife would have NEVER blasted community organizers, for she recognizes that these are people who could be making a whole lot more money elsewhere but are doing their best to serve the needs of low-income communities in urban areas. To insult them is about as slimy as insulting the members of the Peace Corps. Insult lawyers, insult politicians … they’re fair game. But leave community organizers alone. Please.

One day at work, I received an e-mail from Kathy. It included a passage from a blog-post written by Robert F. Kennedy Jr:

“Fascist writer Westbrook Pegler, an avowed racist who Sarah Palin approvingly quoted in her acceptance speech for the moral superiority of small town values, expressed his fervent hope about my father, Robert F. Kennedy, as he contemplated his own run for the presidency in 1965 that ‘some white patriot of the Southern tier will spatter his spoonful of brains in public premises before the snow flies.”

That’s right – the “writer” that Palin quoted, but didn’t name, in support of her tribute to small town values was just another bigoted fascist. But that doesn’t take away from at least the half truth that Palin’s quotation included. It remains accurate that there are plenty of “good people … with honesty, sincerity and dignity” living in small towns. I have come to know a number of these people when I have visited my wife’s family and friends. And I can appreciate why they would take pride in their upbringing. My own question is, why do so many small town folk seem so fearful and put off by those of us who represent the “values” of the city? Are we not also good? Are we any less honest, sincere or dignified?

Speaking for myself, I would never claim to have killed the Bridge to Nowhere if I had not only supported the project but kept the money for my state. I think that statement is neither honest nor sincere. But every politician is entitled to make some stupid comments. If we grant that privilege to Obama and Biden, why not do the same for Palin? What I find less forgivable – what my wife finds less forgivable – is the idea that she can be somehow sequestered so that she doesn’t have to reveal her thoughts to the American public. We’re being asked by McCain’s handlers to vote for her based not on her academic credentials, the substance of her views, or her ability to express those views when not spoonfed by a speechwriter. Rather, we’re being asked to elect Sarah because of her smile, her legs, and the “charm” of her blind ambition. And yet that is precisely what the defender of all things white and rural, Joe Scarborough, applauds.

Just yesterday, Scarborough quoted Oakland Raiders’ owner, Al Davis, in saying that in politics, as in football, the correct motto is “Just Win, Baby!” In other words, it really doesn’t matter whether you comport yourself according to conventional definitions of honorable conduct – all that matters is that you get elected, and whatever you do to get elected is fully appropriate.

Well, Mr. Scarborough, those may be your values, but they’re not consistent with the expressed values of small town America. The last my wife and I checked, those values are supposedly steeped in Scripture. And Scripture includes the following admonition, “Justice, justice shall you pursue!” (Deuteronomy, 16:20) The rabbis are clear about what that means – to practice justice, not only must your goals be laudable, but so must be the means employed to reach those goals. If indeed the cynics who have given us Sarah Palin – and asked us to consider her candidacy in light of small town values – are truly enamored about this great experiment called “democracy,” they have a duty to make her, and her ideas, fully available to all Americans. And that includes those of us heathen who live in big eastern cities, and who come from backgrounds that do not celebrate Jesus – or any other human being -- as God.

Three days ago, I went out to dinner with my wife, who is now named Kathleen Adele Spiro. We were celebrating the fact that 20 years ago, in a Unitarian church in Indianapolis, Indiana, the two of us were married. When we mentioned to the waiter that this was our anniversary, he brought us a delicious desert with a single candle on it. I suggested that before we blow it out, we make a wish. Immediately, my head started turning to thoughts about our daughters … but before I could focus those thoughts onto a single wish, my wife made a suggestion: “Let’s wish that Barack Obama wins the election.”

“Agreed,” I said. Then we blew out the candle. And I smiled.

Sunday, September 21, 2008


Last night, throughout the world, religious Jews celebrated the service called “Selichot” – meaning “forgiveness.” It marks the beginning of the Days of Awe, which culminate in our holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur. During these next 2 1/2 weeks, Jews are tasked with repenting for our “sins against man and God.” We’re also directed to seek forgiveness for those sins, as well as to forgive others who may have sinned against us or our loved ones. For those who take the religion seriously, it’s a difficult period, but an immensely rewarding one.

When I drafted my second novel, Moses the Heretic, I had no idea if it would be published, let alone that its release would coincide with the commencement of the Days of Awe. And yet, it is with pleasure … and no modicum of relief … that I am now able to announce Heretic’s publication and its availability through such outlets as Barnes and Noble (stores or online) and Candidly, I’m not sure my book is worthy of its release date. Then again, I do think that some of the things that are discussed in the book need to be read – and believe me, not just by Jews.

If you go to the Moses the Heretic page on my website (, you can read all about this book. But first, you’ll note that on its cover is a bridge. It is my hope that Heretic serves in that capacity on two levels. Abstractly, the bridge is intended to transport the reader from the land known as Conventional Jewish Wisdom into a more spiritual realm, one that is consistent with the highest ideals of our prophets, including our greatest prophet of all, Moshe Rabbenu (i.e., Moses). More concretely, the bridge is intended to connect the Jewish and Christian world, on the one hand, with the Muslim world, on the other. Such a connection is long overdue, not merely because it is necessary to stop the violence among our peoples but because it is equally necessary to fight ignorance. Watching the way Islam is portrayed by the American media sickens me almost as much as if I were watching the way my own religion used to be portrayed by the Nazis … or the way it still is portrayed in many Arab nations.

You see, none of our societies has a monopoly on ignorance and bigotry, and much of our idiocy can surely be traced to our religions. Nevertheless, it is precisely those same religions – when they are approached with a loving, ecumenical spirit – that point the way to a solution.

As you will see on my website, Moses the Heretic has received endorsements from a number of our nation’s most respected religious leaders and authors, including representatives of the Muslim and Unitarian Universalist communities, as well as several rabbis. Like The Creed Room, Heretic is a work of fiction – indeed, it has considerably more action than The Creed Room and is probably a more advanced work of literature. But I’m not going to lie to you: this is not a book for those who are looking for lyrical prose. It is a novel of ideas, one that I hope will touch the heart every bit as much as the mind, but still an expression of philosophy first and foremost. As such, I have aimed to provoke my readers’ thoughts every bit as much as to entertain them.

That is perhaps all that I dare say at this time. Self promotion is unpleasant at any time of year, but to engage in it now – a time that should be spent repenting – seems especially unseemly. Trust me, I have more pressing things to atone for between now and October 9th than for over-hyping my novel. Suffice to say that if you enjoy this blog, and you have even a modicum of interest in religion (any religion), I feel comfortable in urging you to buy the book and joining me in the trek across the river … or is it an ocean? We’ll be setting sail for a place where religion can finally become a vehicle for unity and not divisiveness. We may not get there, but at least we will have tried.

Saturday, September 13, 2008


The Democratic Party’s biggest problem is that it never learned to appreciate Ronald Reagan. That’s right, you heard me. That anti-intellectual, anti-environment, voodoo-economist, whose attitude to the needy could be summarized as “let ‘em eat cake,” was nevertheless precisely the kind of leader that a vibrant democracy should produce. He was honest. Visionary. Unafraid of change. Respectful of the people. And, above all, willing to express himself clearly and viscerally about the range of issues that most concerns us as a nation.

Of course I almost never agreed with a word he said. Yet that’s hardly the point. In a healthy democracy, we will have citizens with a range of values and political ideas, and we will have leaders, at different times, that represent a fair swath of that range. Ronald Reagan was elected with the help of a tail wind, when his Democratic predecessor proved incapable of governing. In this great democratic experiment, it is appropriate that we have leaders from the right … from time to time. And at other times, we deserve leaders from the left -- leaders who will clearly let us know that their progressive vision cuts across both their domestic and foreign policy agendas. Leaders whose hearts bleed for the poor, who care deeply about ensuring that the government protects us against “market failures” (and especially those involving the environment), and who are men and women of peace, rather than war.

By all rights, now should be one of the times that America tilts left and elects a true progressive, and not just another Blue Dog, centrist Democrat or “Compassionate Conservative” (i.e, phony) Republican. And now WOULD be one of those times, if the Democratic leadership had learned more to appreciate Ronald Reagan.

What am I talking about? Just think of the kind of campaign that a disciple of the Gipper would be running right now if he were in Barack Obama’s shoes. And to do that, think of the campaign that is now being run against Barack by John McCain.

First, he skewers Barack for his inexperience and then he finds a running mate, Sarah Palin, with an even thinner resume. His speechwriters task Palin with denigrating Barack’s work twenty years back as a “community organizer,” which according to McCain’s minions is a job that lacks “actual responsibilities.” Then, the McCain campaign holds up Palin as a great anti-earmark crusader who said “Thanks, but no thanks” to the Bridge to Nowhere – when the truth is that she has always been pro pork, had no qualms in seeking money for the Bridge to Nowhere, and felt no need to return the money for building the bridge once it arrived in Alaska.

The Bridge to Nowhere lie was outrageous, but it turned out that McCain and Company were just getting warmed up. He ran ads saying that Barack advocated sex-ed for kindergarteners, when in fact Barack merely supported sensible legislation calling for “age and developmentally appropriate education.” And the irony is that McCain ran this dishonest ad soon after Barack went out of his way to threaten to fire any staffer who tried to make political hay out of Bristol Palin’s teen pregnancy.

If that wasn’t enough, the McCain campaign accused Barack of making a sexist smear against Palin by using the phrase “putting lipstick on a pig,” when in fact he merely used a metaphor that McCain himself had used earlier in the campaign, and that quite clearly was not referring to Palin.

Finally, at the same time that McCain was employing these slimeball tactics, his campaign manager proudly proclaimed that this election is not about the issues. Well, there at least you have some honesty. The McCain campaign is saying virtually nothing about any issues that matter, and giving the American public virtually no clue as to how either McCain or Sarah Palin would govern if elected. It seems that, to McCain, the American public does not deserve a substantive debate about how best to change this nation’s off-course Government, but should instead be forced to gorge itself on character attacks and out-and-out lies.

So … the question to ask yourself is, WWRD – what would Reagan do if he were campaigning against John McCain?

I don’t think there’s any question that Reagan would hit back hard. He’d speak to the hearts of Americans about precisely how slimy a campaign John McCain is running. He’d use rhetoric, every bit as much as reasoned analysis. And he’d let us know that given all that is at stake in this election, and especially given the number of times that diversionary tactics have been successfully employed in past elections, the fundamental issue today is whether Americans are finally ready to stop encouraging dishonest and sleazy politicians from seeking the most powerful job in the world.

Reagan would surely praise McCain for his past service. But he would relentlessly mock McCain for thinking that such honorable service in the past somehow gives him the right to resort to dishonesty and diversion in the present – and, presumably, the future. The Gipper would especially mock McCain for those disgusting, self-righteous passages in McCain’s stump speeches where he touts himself as someone who learned at the Hanoi Hilton that he must give of himself 100 percent to the service of his country. Are you kidding me? How exactly does it serve one’s country for politicians to divert attention AWAY from the issues? Or to tell outright lies on the campaign trail? Or to insult the wonderful men and women who selflessly go into our nation’s poorest urban communities and attempt to develop the welfare and the pride of the residents there?

To listen to McCain boast about himself, you’d think he was another Samuel, whose mother Hannah was so appreciative of the ability to conceive a child that she gave away her infant child to Eli, the priest, so that he could spend his entire life in the service of God. Now I haven’t memorized the Bible, but I don’t recall reading that Samuel’s judgeship was focused around tactics of dishonesty and diversion. To me, when you center your candidacy on precisely those tactics, while at the same time proclaiming yourself the Platonic Form of the Patriot … you render yourself a suitable subject of relentless mockery. Or at least that’s what would happen if you were running against the a politician as skilled as the Gipper.

In some respects, Barack Obama is qualified to assume the mantle of the Democratic Reagan. Barack is a great communicator, at least when he gives a stump speech. He has a positive vision, one that is based on hope and not fear – just like the Gipper did. And there is an innocence and self-confidence in the way he expresses is political vision that deeply inspires people, in much the same way that Reagan inspired his own troops. To be sure, Barack’s views are in many ways the polar opposite of Reagan’s – I can hardly imagine Reagan saying that he wants to make working in the Civil Service “cool” – but Barack is Reaganesque in his willingness to let us all know that in the direction in which he would like to take us, he is no centrist. Call Barack a progressive, call him a liberal … use whatever word that you want. For all his realization that you can’t change this nation unless you first unify it, and you can’t unify it unless you treat all people with dignity and open your mind to a range of ideas, Barack clearly wants to move this nation leftward, and he’s not ashamed to let everyone know it. Reagan, who was equally clear about his rightward leanings, would have respected that about Barack.

Yes, folks, it was no accident that Barack had to put up with crap from his fellow Democrats for singing the Gipper’s praises during the primary campaign. I loved that about Barack. He understood much of what made Reagan great.

Much, but not all. And that is deeply unfortunate.

I have not been worried about what kind of president Barack would be. It might take him a little while, but I think he would turn into a superb leader who would transform American’s reputation throughout the world … and usher in many vital reforms domestically. But I have at different times been worried about Barack as a campaigner, and those worries have only been exacerbated in the past fortnight. Reagan would never have put up with the kind of sleazy campaign that McCain has run, but Barack appears to have an unlimited tolerance for being the target of sleazy attacks. It’s as if he never got the memo that negative, even blatantly dishonest, campaigning actually WORKS, at least if the response is not equally potent to Americans with average or below-average intelligence.

Ronald Reagan never had the benefit of watching Dukakis, Gore and Kerry go down to defeat at the hands of diversionary and/or dishonest tactics. Reagan didn’t need to watch it. He instinctively understood that if the American public is presented with two candidates, one of whom appears to be a fighter, and the other of whom appears to be a lover, they’ll elect the fighter every time.

Make no mistake -- in many ways, Barack Obama is ready to fight to take this country in a progressive direction, albeit one that involves making the necessary compromises to significantly unify our racial, geographical and classist divisions. We’ve seen Barack’s spirit on display over and over again in the past twenty months. But – and here’s the rub – can he fight DIRTY? Can he fight with mockery? With ad hominems? With the goal of ruthlessly destroying the reputation of his opponent – in this case, a man who once led a truly heroic life, but has turned into yet another example of a cancer upon our political system?

Ronald Reagan was never such a cancer. As politicians go, he was unusually honest with us. Quibble as you might with the scandals of his Administration, but all Administrations have scandals, and this much is undeniable: we knew EXACTLY what we were getting both of the times we elected Ronald Reagan President. But this year, if we were to elect John McCain and Sarah Palin, we’d have no clue what the hell was in store for us. In terms of foreign policy, they’ve given away nothing in terms of how quickly they’d pull the trigger on a military invasion, and even less of a sense of how they would hope to gain international respect (other than through bombing weaker countries). In terms of domestic policy, we know only that they hate pork -- Sarah Palin’s actual record notwithstanding – but haven’t any idea of how they could prevent a Democratic Congress from curtailing its consumption … let alone how they hoped to fix our health care system or address our other deepening domestic crises.

Today, September 13, 2008, this nation is at a crossroads. We have one ticket that is unwilling to level with us and every bit willing to lie its way into the White House. And we have another ticket that will not “lower itself” to fight back in the only way that a fight can be won – by taking off the gloves. So that leads us but one choice – to remember the words of Barack Obama. “We are the change that we have been looking for.” We – not Barack, and certainly not Joe “The Invisible Man” Biden – must seize the moment.

We-the-People must fight McCain and Palin. We must decry their lies, and demand a return to the issues. This message must be heard on radio stations, in comments to blogs, and even around the water cooler. The next time a Republican defends McCain and Palin as simply doing what politicians always do – divert and deceive – point out to that Republican just how full of crap he or she is.

I say this not because I’m a partisan but because I’m a lover of Jeffersonian Democracy. Back in the late 90s, I didn’t feel free to defend Clinton when he was dishonoring the Office of the Presidency. I attacked Clinton, and did so to my fellow Democrats. Republicans mustn’t feel free to defend McCain when he dishonors the concept of democracy. Let’s make sure they hear that we’re mad as hell as we’re not going to take it any more.

Democracy rests on a free, open marketplace of ideas – not a bunch of People Magazine profiles littered with lies and attacks against holy occupations (like “community organizer”). If we’re not willing to fight for that marketplace of ideas, our proud nation will become increasingly irrelevant overseas.

We owe it to Ronald Reagan – not to mention our planet – to do better. And, believe me, we have absolutely no time to lose.

Sunday, September 07, 2008


Well folks, the inevitable has happened. After enjoying an eight point lead in the Gallup Tracking poll only a week or so ago, Barack Obama now trails by three points. I say it was inevitable, because the media has clearly become infatuated with a different politician. Obama has lost his “celebrity” status – he’s becoming just another politician. Sarah Palin is the flavor of the week. Or is it the month? Or is it the season? I can’t definitively answer the latter two questions, but I think I could answer it if the Democrats don’t have anything in mind to change the dynamic.

My wife captured the moment quite aptly when she said that Sarah Palin has captivated a nation that is hooked on Reality TV. She’s become this year’s American Idol. And there’s no Simon Cowell to put her down.

Barack Obama won’t do it – he has trouble putting down anyone, except maybe George Bush (talk about a piƱata!). Joe Biden won’t do it – I was shocked and frankly appalled when he referred to Palin’s put down of community organizers as a “great line.” Are you kidding me? That’s our attack dog? His opponent insults thousands of hard working, low paid, public servants by claiming that they have no “actual responsibilities,” and our attack dog says “great line”?

Apparently, Hillary won’t put down the new American Idol either – at least that’s what is being reported. She was willing in the spring to tarnish Barack by making invidious comparisons between him and John McCain, but she’s not willing to take on a politician who would lock up a rape victim for aborting her fetus, ignore global warming, cut taxes for the rich, and say absolutely nothing about foreign policy?

I used the term rope-a-dope the other day to refer to a GOP strategy. I can only hope the Dems are employing it now, or perhaps they’re waiting a couple of more days for the glow of last Wednesday night to wear off. But just as likely, they are revealing the typical Democratic reluctance to take the gloves off.

This, remember, is the same political party that threw my friend Steve Novick under the bus in Oregon because they found a monotonous and uninspired professional politician to run for Senator. Novick dominated the contest, except for one thing – he couldn’t compete with all the money that the Party establishment in D.C. threw at his opponent. So Novick lost by three percent. And – surprise! – the GOP candidate seems to be ahead after the Democrat has run a lackluster general election campaign.

Going back in history a bit, this is the same political party who, in the past two decades, went down to defeat after nominating a war hero who allowed others to mock his war record (John Kerry), a successful Vice President who campaigned as a block of wood (Al Gore), and a brilliant Governor who showed not a shred of emotion when asked how he would react to hearing about his wife being raped (Michael Dukakis). Methinks the party needs a little less reason and a bit more spirit.

What follows is a passage from The Creed Room that I wrote a few years ago to illustrate the plight of the Democrats. I had hoped we would have learned our lesson by 2008, but I’m beginning to wonder if we ever will.

“Tolerance. Compassion. Reason. These are words that most Americans can rally around, regardless of their political affiliation. I still believe that liberal Americans have been the most consistent in fighting for these principles, but they haven't fought with balls …

“Lately, we've heard them hype their leaders as warriors. Don't make me laugh. Warriors are characterized above all by their courage. When they run for office, they must show the guts to act decisively and to risk their political lives on unpopular positions. Warrior politicians don't claim to be more “competent” or “smarter.” They claim that deep down, you know they're right.

“Remember that this is a country that loves guns, hates taxes, and isn't overly concerned about universal health care. How do the liberals take power in such a place? Certainly not by playing it safe and pretending to be something they're not. In order to win, liberals must inspire. And …if you want to inspire, you had better be authentic.

“… Stop being liberals in moderates' clothing. Show your balls. Maybe you won't get people to agree with you, but at least they might respect you. That would be a start.”

When a political unknown with an unimpressive record insults not only you but a group who is part of the very heart and soul of your movement (community organizers), isn’t it time to strike back? And when you do strike, isn’t it time to do so with some sharp words – words indicating passion, and not pensiveness?

What I saw this morning from Biden and Barack on the talk shows was the typical Democratic appeal to the mind. But if they hope to avoid the fate of Dukakis, Gore and Kerry, they had better appeal just as much to the viscera. I guarantee you that Sarah Palin gets that, and she hasn’t even had to deal with losing seven Presidential elections out of the last ten.

You’d think experience would be a great teacher. You’d think the “Hillraisers” would have learned from experience that Reagan was on to something when he termed the Eleventh Commandment, “Thou Shalt Not Criticize a Fellow Republican.” You’d think Barack and Biden would learn that when you’re swift boated, the worst thing you can do is nothing at all. And you’d think that the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee would realize that at a time when every party needs money for the General Election, you don’t throw huge bucks at machine politicians so that they can beat inspired insurgent candidates in PRIMARIES.

You’d think. Then again, just as nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American voter, nobody ever got rich betting on the Democrats to communicate with those voters either. They have two months left to go against their instincts and fight for hearts more than minds.

Let’s put it this way, sports fans. It’s late in a close game, and the Democrats have the ball. But I’m afraid the Republicans have the lead. If that sounds like a toss up, it’s because it is.

Friday, September 05, 2008


OK, I admit it. You all have found one hell of a celebrity in Sarah Palin. Great story. Her political views are pre-historic, but she has great presence and she's a great story. Plus, she actually comes across as sincere ... even to me. So congrats, so far, on finding a diamond in the rough.

But seriously, was your convention really worth it? I'm a politics junkie and I couldn't stay awake through John McCain's speech. I'm told that the last 90 seconds was good, but I was literally asleep by then. So I couldn't see anything good in that speech, other than it will help my candidate (Obama) win the election.

If McCain is going to give that flat a speech, why then hold a convention? And why hold it Minnesota, where you guys are down by double digits? Don't you know how tragic that decision has been? My Minnesota Twins had to play fourteen friggen games in a row on the road because you were using their hometown. Fourteen games! They haven't won a game in a week. You've got their unhittable closer blowing save after save. Was that really necessary? What did the poor Minnesota Twins ever do to you? They've never raised your taxes.

Next time, hold your convention in Alaska and leave the Major Leagues alone. On behalf of all Minnesotans (including their passed-up Governor) and Twins fans everywhere, get the hell out of town and take your sleepy Presidential candidate along with you!

As for Sarah, she's earned a trip to Washington ... as Senator Stevens' replacement. I'll offer right now that if she comes to my town in that capacity, I'll cradle little Trig like everyone else.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008


Sometimes I wonder whether John McCain isn’t playing with a full deck. Other times, I wonder whether McCain isn’t just playing rope a dope. Either way, it’s a scary prospect.

Five days have now elapsed since McCain whisked Barack Obama off the front pages of the news. With each day, this election spirals further and further out of control. No, I’m not talking about the competitiveness of the race; that remains in the balance and probably will continue to do so until election night, particularly after Sara Palin gave such a well-received speech. I’m referring instead to the level of elevation in the discourse – in other words, I’m referring to the importance of the ideas that will likely decide the outcome. Or, in this case, the lack thereof.

We have two men who present a study of contrasts on virtually all the major issues of public policy. One guy wants to be the world’s policeman, the other the world’s diplomat. One guy wants to cut taxes on the rich, the other wants to raise them. One guy wants to “drill, drill, drill,” the other wants to “save, save, save” when it comes to the use of fossil fuels. One guy likes our health care system pretty much the way it is, the other actually wants to make health care available to people who are poor. One guy wants to compromise on the propriety of torture (after having been tortured), the other wants to see torture outlawed.

These are pretty significant issues. But instead, we find ourselves talking about sex, guns, the unborn, and … proper names for children (what’s your preference, Dweezil or Track?). Anyway, I’m beginning to think that this election is going to be decided based on what Benedict Joe Lieberman would call “michegas.” This moment in history is too important to let us see that happen.

So here’s the deal, my fellow Democrats, and all others who think that John McCain is off his rocker: let’s focus everyone’s attention on where it needs to be focused, and not on the circus known as the candidacy of Sara Palin. There are still only two candidates for President. One gave a profoundly inspired speech in Denver, which is but one of many profoundly inspired speeches he has given in the past year. We need to talk about Barack Obama, and why he was able to defeat arguably the most powerful political machine in modern American history. We need people to know that finally, we aren’t simply supporting the “lesser of two evils,” we’re supporting someone who has a chance to become one of our greatest Presidents. He displayed his class yet again this week when he threatened to fire any staffer whom he catches making an issue of his opponent’s children. This guy is a keeper, and we need to make sure he’s elected.

The other object of our attention should be the man formerly known as Senator John McCain. He’s the man responsible for playing eeny, meeny, miny, moe with the office of the Vice Presidency, and quite possibly the Presidency. He wasn’t getting any younger prior to this week, and I can’t believe he hasn’t aged five months in the last five days.

Seriously, the pick of Sarah Palin seemed nutty on Friday. Some would say that, after tonight’s speech, it looks pretty craft. But personally, it just pisses me off – not because I think it will (or will not) prove effective for McCain’s chances of victory, but because of what it says about John McCain.

Where did McCain get off selecting an unknown who he didn’t bother to vet? Where did get off ripping into Barack Obama’s experience all summer, only to select someone with even less experience to mar our collective fall? Where did McCain get the chutzpah to select a “reformer” who supported the Bridge to Nowhere just two years ago, or a “lover of nature” who supports drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Reserve and doesn’t believe that people have had a hand in global warming? Where did McCain get the gall to call himself a maverick Republican, and then select a running mate who is as far right as Dennis Kucinich is left? And where did McCain get the bright idea to select a potential “Commander in Chief” who not only has no foreign policy experience, but hasn’t even given much thought to the issues underlying the Iraq War?

Yeah, I know, it sounds like I’m coming down on Palin more than McCain. But truly, I’m not. I have very little against Palin. She may not be qualified for VP or President, but few people are. She may be far to the right, but that’s every bit her right, just as it is Kucinich’s right to be so far left. I don’t come down on sincere people who happen to be at a difference place on the ideological spectrum than I am.

In accepting the nomination, didn’t she simply answer a call to duty from the leader of her Party? If anything, she’s had a raw deal herself this week, having to put up with all this National Enquirer crap about her daughter’s sex life, her own unsubstantiated “extra marital” affairs, and her husband’s DWI from two full decades back. Seriously, people should leave that junk out of the equation. Some of it is sexist, and much of it is hypocritical: the last I checked, none of us come from perfect families or have perfect pasts.

Part of Palin’s problem is that none other than Barack Obama has come to her defense. For yet another week, he’s had perfect pitch. So Palin comes across as petty when she attacks Barack, particularly given that the American public agrees more with him on the issues than with either McCain or Palin.

So how then does the GOP compete with Barack Obama? It seems that the only way McCain gains on him is by running attack adds that are more ruthless, more mocking, than Obama’s. Even now, McCain is on TV, yet again, lambasting Obama for being all talk and no action – in contrast to Sarah, the superhero. Spare me, McCain. Just spare me. You had your chance to run a dignified campaign, in which you could legitimately toast your honorable service in the Senate and in the Vietnam War and point out how Obama’s experience pales in comparison. But that wasn’t good enough for you. You had to question Obama’s patriotism, suggesting that he’d rather win an election than a war. Then, you had to question his substance, by comparing him to Britany and Paris, and later had to mock him as uppity, by comparing him to Moses. (A comparison Palin repeated yet again tonight.) Tonight, after Barack gratuitously came to the defense of your VP selection when she was being roasted by the media, your speechwriters had the temerity to put in Palin’s mouth the idea that Barack doesn’t really care about changing the world, he only wants to improve his career.

You’ve done it now, “my friend.” You’ve turned into Karl Rove with POW stories.

My fellow Democrats, when you consider the kind of campaign that John McCain has run, please don’t let him off the hook. Turn your heads away from Track, Willow, Piper, Twig and even Bristol (as well as that self-proclaimed “redneck” boyfriend of hers). Try to resist your fascination with the latest “celebrity” politician, aka The Sexy Librarian. Look squarely at John McCain. He is the man responsible for turning our politics into a horrid soap opera. He did it because he was desperate – not desperate to serve, just desperate to win.

It’s a state of mind that has never characterized Barack Obama, who even now won’t go for the jugular. He prefers instead to serve as a model of class. Some Republicans think that’s what makes McCain the better man -- they value ruthlessness in a “man’s sport” like politics. But just you wait. When this election is over, and Barack has likely emerged the victor, he will be able to unify this country. If, by contrast, McCain were somehow able to pull a rabbit out of Palin’s hat based on debates about sex, guns, and fetuses … and the relentless mockery of a distinguished statesman and a truly historic candidate … I suspect this country will be even more divided and paralyzed than it is today.

We can’t afford that. Not with the real threats out there that Sarah hasn’t bothered to think much about until now, but you and I know exist.