Sunday, March 29, 2009


Every two years, 435 men and women are elected to the House of Representatives, otherwise known as the “People’s House,” in the world’s most celebrated democracy and melting pot. You’d hope that in a world of 1.3 billion Muslims, the People’s House might have welcomed more than a handful of Muslims to our latest Congress.

The fact, however, is that in the entire history of our nation, the number of Muslims who’ve been elected to the House – or for that matter, the entire Congress -- is a grand total of two. The first of the two – with a total of two years seniority -- is Keith Ellison, a 45 year-old black man from Minneapolis. Recently, I had a chance to meet Congressman Ellison, and I came away very, very impressed.

To win his historic election in 2006, Ellison, no less than Barack Obama, had to survive countless charges of guilt by association. In Ellison’s case, the Reverend Wright-analogue was none other than Louis Farrakhan – a fellow black Muslim who once referred to Judaism as a “dirty religion” and claimed that Hitler was “wickedly great.” Few Americans are more associated with anti-Semitism than Farrakhan, and so it is not surprising that when Ellison was said to have been an “associate” of Farrakhan, questions emerged about Ellison’s anti-Semitism.

The Weekly Standard, on October 9, 2006, offered this little bio of Ellison:
Ellison was born Catholic in Detroit. He states that he converted to Islam as an undergraduate at Wayne State University. As a third-year student at the University of Minnesota Law School in 1989-90, he wrote two columns for the Minnesota Daily under the name "Keith Hakim." In the first, Ellison refers to "Minister Louis Farrakhan," defends Nation of Islam spokesman Khalid Abdul Muhammad, and speaks in the voice of a Nation of Islam advocate. In the second, "Hakim" demands reparations for slavery and throws in a demand for an optional separate homeland for American blacks. In February 1990, Ellison participated in sponsoring Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael) to speak at the law school on the subject "Zionism: Imperialism, White Supremacy or Both?" Jewish law students met personally with Ellison and appealed to him not to sponsor the speech at the law school; he rejected their appeal, and, as anticipated, Ture gave a notoriously anti-Semitic speech. Ellison admits that he worked on behalf of the Nation of Islam in 1995. At a rally for the Million Man March held at the University of Minnesota, Ellison appeared onstage with Khalid Abdul Muhammad, who ran true to form: According to a contemporaneous Star Tribune article, "If words were swords, the chests of Jews, gays and whites would be pierced.
Sounds nefarious enough, wouldn’t you say? Obviously, Glenn Beck thought so. The overexposed pundit, a self-proclaimed Christian, interviewed Ellison shortly after his historic victory, and felt free to speak on behalf of a nation of concerned citizens. "I have been nervous about this interview with you,” Beck said. “because what I feel like saying is, 'Sir, prove to me that you are not working with our enemies.’ I'm not accusing you of being an enemy, but that's the way I feel, and I think a lot of Americans will feel that way."
Perhaps so. I suspect many of my fellow Jews felt that way, especially when Ellison decided to take his oath of office on the Qur’an. "Insofar as a member of Congress taking an oath to serve America and uphold its values is concerned, America is interested in only one book, the Bible," wrote Jewish author Dennis Prager. "If you are incapable of taking an oath on that book, don't serve in Congress."

This was the way Ellison was treated as a newly elected Congressman back at the end of 2006. He had to prove to the rest of us that he was loyal to the American way, and was neither an anti-Semite or a terrorist sympathizer. His flirtation with the Nation of Islam in his younger days had branded him to many as a threat. It’s not hard to imagine what Joseph McCarthy or a young Richard Nixon would have done to the guy back in the early 50s. In fact, you don’t even have to look that far back in time; just think about the way Clinton and Palin tried to portray Barack Obama as not really one of us. That charge never stuck to Barack, but then again, he was never associated with a group as universally reviled in America as the Nation of Islam. Sure enough, as progressive as I try to be, I share more than a few trepidations about Ellison’s former associates. Say what you want about what he’s done for the economic well-being of black Americans: as far as I’m concerned, Farrakhan’s rhetoric has gone way over the line. He’s given the Jewish people every reason to see him as an anti-Semite, and anything but a friend to peace.

But Keith Ellison is not Louis Farrakhan any more than Barack Obama is Reverend Wright That point was made very obvious to me when I saw him speak on March 17th on Capitol Hill at an event sponsored by the American Anti-Arab Discrimination Committee. That evening, Ellison and his fellow Congressman Brian Baird reported on their trip to Gaza and Israel following the end of the recent war. Those two men, together with Senator John Kerry, were the first U.S. Government representatives who officially toured the Gaza Strip in more than three years. In its own way, that three-year absence is nearly as offensive as anything ever said by Farrakhan.

When Ellison spoke, the facts I learned about the Gaza War weren’t exactly similar to what I had heard just a few weeks earlier when a delegate from the Israeli Government spoke about the war to members of my synagogue. Ellison began by talking about the fact that the majority of Gazan residents are under 18. He then went on to explain that the Israeli Government is essentially putting these children on a diet. Food as basic as lentils, tomato paste and macaroni are being excluded. If you want “luxury” foods, such as candy, you have to get them through the infamous smuggling tunnels. Visitors to the Strip see as many animal-pulled carts as cars, which reflects how limited fuel is (despite the proximity to so much oil). One official of the Israeli army referred to the Gaza Strip as “Hamas-stan” when he met with Ellison. Ellison left that meeting (understandably) discouraged.

Ellison also presented evidence of tremendous devastation from the recent war, including devastation to the American International school there, which he claimed was teaching a curriculum of tolerance for all peoples. When I attended the earlier briefing by the Israeli official, I learned that when schools and mosques were struck, it was only because the Arabs had located them nearby rocket launchers. Unfortunately, the Israeli Government, in its infinite wisdom, decided to exclude from Gaza all independent journalists who could possibly confirm the Israeli party line that every possible measure was being taken to avoid civilian casualties. I guess the Arab world will simply have to take that on faith. Who needs objective reporting anyway?

I appreciate learning from Ellison some facts about the conflict that aren’t likely to be disseminated here in the United States, Israel’s closest ally. But what I appreciated more from Ellison was the way he avoided the opportunity to pile on with the rhetoric, as some would have liked. To begin, Ellison strove to ensure that all who attended the Capitol Hill function appreciated the plight of the Israelis who live in a town less than one mile from Gaza and must endure the constant threat of shelling from Hamas rockets. This shelling cannot be excused, he said.

What impressed me more, though, was the way Ellison dealt with comments from audience members who aired their dislike for the Israeli Government. Ellison’s response was consistent: venting against Israel might be cathartic, but it’s hardly helpful. The goal here must be peace, and peace will not be achieved by advocating measures or using rhetoric that “drive people into their corners and get them to put up their dukes.” Ellison went on to say, “Stop the hate speech and stop terrorism. All Arab states must work for that, and stand for the existence of Israel.”

So there you have it. Those are the words of a supposedly scary black Muslim, speaking from a position of power to a largely Muslim audience. The words don’t exactly fit in with the stereotype in the American media of the way Muslims are supposed to view Israel and the peace process. After his talk, I invited Ellison to participate in our local Muslim-Jewish Dialogue Initiative, and he said that he would love to. I don’t doubt for a second that he is ecumenical in his approach and has a much warmer view of my religion than many of my co-religionists have about his.

Thinking about Ellison’s talk, I am reminded of how important it is for bodies like the United States Congress to reflect diversity – be it ethnic, religious, or otherwise. Ellison brings a perspective on these issues that is sorely lacking among his colleagues, many if not most of whom continue to believe that Islam’s very Scripture calls for the gratuitous killing of all who would deny that “there is only one God and Muhammad is His messenger.”

Of course, it is one thing to claim to be for peace and tolerance, and it is another to actively work to pursue peace. So here’s a concrete suggestion for all of my fellow Jews who wish to include themselves in the latter camp. The next time you go to your shul, approach a member of your Board and make the following request in the strongest possible terms. “Do you know that sign in front of the synagogue that says ‘We support Israel’? We see that sign in front of just about every synagogue in America, right? Well do me this favor, either take it down or, preferably, put up another one. It should say “We support Palestine.’” Displaying either sign, without the other, is a step in the wrong direction.

Saturday, March 21, 2009


Do you recall how inspiring this year’s inauguration was? Do you remember how much America fell in love not only with Barack Obama but his entire family? The affection seemed to be coming from all sides – left and right, black and white, red and blue. Millions stood for hours in freezing weather. Hundreds of millions seemed to accompany them in spirit. It appeared that everyone in America had pledged as their patriotic duty a robust commitment to tackle the problems that Barack had discussed during the campaign.

That was 60 days ago, a mere two months. And now look at what Barack is facing. Last night on Jay Leno, he said that Washington was like American Idol, except that everyone is Simon Cowell. Sounds about right, until you realize that Cowell occasionally raves about a performance. Who is sticking up for Barack? Certainly not the leading Republicans. The last one Barack attempted to nominate for a Cabinet position, Senator Judd Gregg, turned tail after saying in private that he would take the job. Rush Limbaugh, arguably the spiritual leader of the GOP, publicly announced that he’d like to see Barack “fail.” And now, Mitt Romney, likely the Republican candidate in 2012, has cited Barack for his inexperience, “learning on the fly,” and lack of focus. Hell, Romney even bashed Barack for appearing on Jay Leno, where he was able to communicate directly and clearly to the American public. Apparently, in the post-Cheney era of government, that TV appearance was a huge faux pas. Better to sequester yourself in a bunker and plot nefarious thoughts. Perhaps Romney and I share a love for James Bond, only I prefer Bond and Romney prefers Blofeld.

Of course, it’s one thing for the GOP to be attacking Barack, but I don’t hear him getting much love from the Dems either. In fact, I’m not quite sure what the Dems are thinking these days. We know that they supported the stimulus bill (thank God), but do they support additional bailouts of the banks? Or of the auto industry? Do they support Barack’s efforts to keep global warming legislation on the hot seat? Or to universalize healthcare? Or to tackle the Arab-Israeli conflict? This week, Senator Evan Bayh, who comes across as a cyborg from Planet Opportunism, announced on Morning Joe that he and 14 other “moderate Democratic” Senators – some of whom lack the cojones to identify themselves – are going to form a new group. From all appearances, Bayh’s group hopes to hold the balance of power in the Senate, serving as a kind of third party that will reign in the liberals and prevent them from allowing the President to get carried away with progressive legislation. God forbid that, in a democracy where we allowed Ronald Reagan to deregulate to his heart’s content, we would ever again allow liberals a chance to govern. God forbid that, after Barack Obama won his election in a landslide, we would ever permit him to implement the agenda for which he campaigned.

Well, enough with the naysayers. I, for one, support Barack. Sure he’s made mistakes, but I wouldn’t want any other living politician to take his place. Just consider how stacked the odds are against him. He’s being asked to win a gun fight with a knife, and a rather dull knife at that.

I’ll even cut him some slack on the financial bailout – as sickening as it has been, and as poorly as it has been handled, it does appear that something needed to be done to prevent the banks from collapsing. Still, for me to continue to support Barack with the same kind of vigor with which he has been attacked, he must keep certain principles in mind. If I could speak directly to the President, this is what I would say:

“First, stop giving in to the panic about our financial industry. We might have diffused part of the AIG stink bomb had we entered into the TARP deliberately. Then, we would have had a chance to decide which strings to attach and how legally to attach them. Now, everyone is panicking once again about the need to stop the God-forsaken bonuses from flowing. As a result, nobody seems to be paying attention to the constitutionality of the upcoming Congressional fix.

“So please, slow things down. And don’t let the Chicken Littles scare you into making any more mistakes. I, for one, would hope that you invite Paul Krugman into the White House and listen carefully to why he dislikes the bailout plan you’re reportedly poised to announce. I don’t know enough about economics to say that he’s right, but he does seem to have a better track record than most … including some of your advisors.

“Second, stop the bullshitting. Chris Dodd looks like a fool for telling two contradictory stories in two days about his role in the AIG scandal. But he’s not your responsibility. Geithner is. What kind of idiots does he think we are, saying that he took action immediately after he “heard about the full scale of these specific things [the AIG bonuses]”? That’s called weasel worded language, and it doesn’t sound like the “change” you promised. Gieithner obviously knew about the bonuses for months, so why didn’t he simply admit it? Nobody cares if he knew the “full scale” of the problem (i.e., that the total amount was precisely $165 million) when it’s clear that he knew that AIG was contractually obliged to pay huge bonus payments to the same jerks that helped screw up our economy. Clearly, he consciously decided for whatever reason to let the bonus payments go through. He should own up to that fact and not pretend that he’s recently been hoodwinked.

“As I mentioned in a previous post, your campaign was built on the need for credibility and transparency to return to Government. If you or your people lose sight of that, your Presidency will fail. And whenever you have a Cabinet member who loses his credibility and his ability to communicate with the public, you might want to reconsider his effectiveness. None of your underlings – not even Geithner – is ‘too big to fail.’ I have to say, though, that I’m hoping he stays on for a while longer; this wouldn’t be an optimal time to make a change.

“Third, remember what Government-by-bailout really means: trickle-down economics. Some of this is surely necessary, but it mustn’t become the sole theme of your economic plan.
Right now, that plan appears to be all about throwing ungodly – indeed, limitless -- sums of money at inept companies. The overall impression you’ve given is that nobody is being asked to sacrifice anything to get out of this economic recession – except, of course, for our children and grandchildren who must pay for the national debt, and middle class losers like me who have watched our 401Ks disintegrate. In other words, the people you are asking to sacrifice are the ones who can afford it the least. That’s not a sustainable approach for any President, and certainly not a Democratic one.

“Fourth, during your campaign, you talked about fiscal conservatism. You never said that you’d be increasing the national debt by many trillions of dollars. Now I’ll stipulate that times change, and a little extra deficit spending is only prudent during times of recession. Why, though, are you slavishly sticking to your campaign promises on revenues (i.e., taxes), if you’re so willing to steer a different course on the budget?

“Today, when I opened up the Washington Post, I was immediately blasted with news about your budget. The article says that, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, your current proposals, if enacted, “would force the nation to borrow nearly $9.3 trillion over the next decade,” or $2.3 trillion more than you predicted. Further, deficits under your policies ‘would exceed 4 percent of the overall economy over the next 10 years, a level White House budget director Peter R. Orszag yesterday acknowledged would not be sustainable. The result, according to the CBO, would be an ever-expanding national debt that would exceed 82 percent of the overall economy by 2019 – double last year’s level – and threaten the nation’s financial stability.’

“Isn’t it time you addressed our budget crisis in earnest?

“If you want to honor the spirit of your campaign and maintain some budgetary sanity, you’ve got some difficult decisions to make. But one decision seems especially obvious: you must increase the top marginal tax rates to well above what they were under Clinton, when they reached 39.6%. Yet you surely know that those rates equaled 70% under Nixon and exceeded 90% under Eisenhower. Now that our nation’s economic needs are particularly acute and the distribution of wealth in this country is especially obscene, the time is ripe for re-instituting those old “Republican” tax plans … or at least something much, much closer to them.

“What? Did I hear you say that in this climate Americans will never voluntarily give up their nest eggs? Listen, man, they already have. Let me read to you from Thomas Friedman’s column, which was published on March 18th in the New York Times: ‘I live in Montgomery County, MD. The schoolteachers here, who make on average $67,000 a year, recently voted to voluntarily give up their 5 percent pay raise that was contractually agreed to for next year, saving our school system $89 million – so programs and teachers would not have to be terminated.’

“You didn’t even have to use your bully pulpit to convince Montgomery County’s schoolteachers to forsake their pay raise. These are public spirited people who naturally would agree to pitch in to help their country, just as an entire generation of Americans did during the early 40s. My wife was one of those Montgomery County schoolteachers, and she never bothered to mention to me about the vote before reading Friedman’s column; she felt ethically compelled to give up the extra pay. How else could she look herself in the mirror?

“Barack, if you want to be an American President worthy of your hype, you must make the case for sacrifice. And you must begin by demanding sacrifices from those Americans who are most able to afford the hit. Do you honestly think that by taxing the richest of the richest, their lifestyles will be noticeably affected? Or that they will lose all motivation to be productive at a time when their nation needs them the most?

“Spinoza, writing back in the 17th century, said that ‘providing for the poor is a duty, which falls on the State as a whole, and has regard only to the general advantage.’ You, Barack, have the misfortune of entering the White House at a point when nearly all of us either see ourselves as poor, or recognize the chance that we may soon enough achieve that status. We need you to marshal the public funds to support us. And to do that, you have a choice: wimp out and borrow money from our children and grandchildren to put off the day of reckoning; or take the case to the country that we can no longer afford our vast inequality of wealth and that the nation’s corporate lawyers, Wall Street tycoons, and Hollywood celebrities will have to live more like the rest of us and adopt the spirit of the Montgomery County schoolteachers.

“Sure, you’ll get some grief from Fox News, CNBC, and talk radio. But that shouldn’t be a problem – if you’re willing to take off the kid gloves. Trot out the schoolteachers. Introduce us to the nurses and the social workers who are equally public spirited. Let them tell their stories, stories of true patriotism and religiosity in the highest sense of that word. Ever since Reagan, the AIGs of the world have been foisting on us all the baloney that THEY are the real patriots because their superior wealth attests to their superior economic contributions. Now we’ve all seen what a crock that is.

“We are good and ready for a statesman like you to tell every American that they will be expected to pitch in. I’m not talking about implementing socialism, or depriving people of all incentives to excel in the economic arena. But I am talking about restoring the kind of wealth equity we had in the decades before Gordon Gekko. Back then, we knew we had to win wars and fight for prosperity. It required the kind of ‘focus’ Mitt Romney spoke about, and yet it wasn’t just the focus of the President, it was the focus of the entire nation.

“Mr. President, this is your time. This is the time to put your incredible oratorical skills to the test. This is the time to challenge the people of this nation. Are they more like the Montgomery County schoolteachers or the executives of AIG? Please help us find out. If my memory of your inauguration hasn’t failed, I think we just might surprise you.”

Saturday, March 14, 2009


I’m one of those guys who rarely misses a reunion. I value connecting the dots of my life, remembering the past, and seeing how my old friends and acquaintances have evolved. I’ve been to every reunion of my high school and college classes since the tenth. And not only do I attend these affairs, but I usually enjoy them. That’s pretty remarkable for a guy who’s practically allergic to small talk.

Still, there is one set of reunions I’ve never attended. These are the gatherings of the Harvard Law School Class of ’84. We have our 25th reunion coming up within the next month or two. No matter. I have no plans to show up. There’s something about the HLS environment that I find off-putting even to this day. I wrote about it briefly in my first novel. The professors were, with limited exceptions, the Platonic form of arrogance. And the students weren’t exactly God’s gift to warmth and spontaneity. Going up to Boston to “network” with them isn’t my idea of a good time. So, once again, I’ll pass on the opportunity.

That’s not to say, however, that the Class of ’84 has been out of my mind this year. Far from it. This has been a notable 12 months for a few of my classmates, a very difficult and often painful 12 months.

Let me begin by reminding everyone of a subject I discussed last spring at some length – the U.S. Senate campaign of Steve Novick. Standing at 4’ 9”, having a metal hook for a left arm, never having run for political office at ANY level, possessing almost no money, and representing the far left of the American political spectrum, Novick wasn’t exactly a favorite when he announced his candidacy. But the guy made one brilliant campaign ad after another, some of which gained national attention and all of which were perfectly suited for the quirky city of Portland, his state’s only metropolis. By the eve of the primary, Novick was actually ahead in the polls. For me, his old law-school friend who travelled out to Oregon to help with the campaign, it was like witnessing a fairy tale.

Then, of course, reality reared its head, and Novick was defeated by the slimmest of margins. The winner of the primary, Jeff Merkley, then went on in November to claim a seat in the U.S. Senate. Gloriously, Novick bested Merkley in Portland by double digits. However, my friend’s victory in Portland wasn’t quite enough to erase Merkley’s dominance in the rest of the state.

When thinking back on that campaign, I can’t help but focus on the role of Chuck Schumer, the NewYork Senator who ran the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. For reasons known only to Schumer and a few of his fat-cat buddies on the Hill, the Senior Senator from Gotham raised a ton of cash from donors throughout the nation that he gave to Merkley to use against Novick. As a result, on the day of the election, Oregon was blanketed with ads for Merkley, and all Novick had was die-hard supporters like me dropping literature at homes. What would have happened, I wonder, had Schumer stayed out of the race and allowed the people of Oregon to decide it for themselves? Quite probably, Novick would now be a United States Senator, and the HLS Class of ’84 would be rejoicing at the ascension of one of its most beloved members.

Novick, you see, began law school at the tender age of 18, having previously gone directly from middle school to college. Everyone who knew Novick at Harvard loved him – for his incredibly precocious mind, his upbeat personality, and his infectious sense of humor. He was, stated simply, a breath of fresh air in a social environment that sorely needed one. Unfortunately, he is now just another under-employed American. What a shame.

But at least Novick emerged from his campaign with his pride intact. That cannot be said for all of my other prominent classmates.

This past year was particularly brutal for the lovely Silda Wall and her husband and fellow HLS ’84 graduate, Elliot Spitzer. I couldn’t believe my eyes a couple of weeks ago when I saw Elliot was back in the news. He had just purchased a building one block from his Waterloo -- the Mayflower Hotel. What shocked me was the price tag for this little piece of D.C. real estate: the tidy sum of $180 million. Sure, what disgraced statesman doesn’t have $180 million lying around when they need to transition away from politics?

Talk about surreal!

Seriously, consider the context. Here’s a guy who busts his butt to become one of the most powerful state Attorney Generals in the history of this country, and then rises to the position of New York State Governor, only to toss away his good name on high-priced hookers. We all watched as he humiliated his wife, who I remember as being a truly lovely person, and we can only imagine how his children felt, knowing just what their daddy loved to do with his free time. I was frankly worried for the man’s safety, for he wasn’t just any John, he was Mr. Law and Order. How, I wondered, could he ever look himself in the mirror again?

Well, wouldn’t you know it, he found a way. The quintessential golden parachute. Some people “pick up the pieces” of their lives by checking into rehab, or by going to work at a menial job (“would you like any ketchup with those fries”). Elliot? He just goes back to the scene of his abject humiliation, looks down the street a few feet, and then decides “That building looks lucrative. I think I’ll just dump $180 million on it.”

In case you couldn’t tell, Elliot had a bit more family money than Novick when he came to law school. Elliot’s dad owned buildings in Manhattan. Novick came into his money with the help of his mom, the truck stop waitress. Who says Harvard lawyers aren’t diverse? After all, some of us never even go on to practice law. In that regard, I have in mind one more classmate: James Cramer.

I assume by now that everyone’s heard of Cramer. He’s the Crazy Eddie of CNBC. As the host of “Mad Money,” Cramer has made a name for himself running around manically while proclaiming which stocks to sell and which to buy, all the while pretending that he actually knew what he was talking about. If you look him up, the dude didn’t do nearly as well in Law School as his good friend, Elliot Spitzer, so after he was turned down for a position with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New York, he decided to take on Wall Street – just not in the same way Spitzer did. Spitzer fought to regulate the Street; Cramer became what is known as a “Big Swinging Dick,” aka a successful player of the Wall Street game. He started out as a broker with Goldman Sachs and did well enough that, in 1987, he opened up his own hedge fund. The fund attracted such notable investors as, you guessed it: Elliot Spitzer. In 1996, Cramer and New Republic Editor Martin Peretz co-founded Still later, Cramer began working on, which aims to educate Main Street about Wall Street. Add his entertaining TV show to the mix, and you have what has appeared to be the quintessential Bodhisattva of Wall Street – a successful trader who was not only content to make money for himself and his wealthy clients, but has felt compelled to share with the American public the secrets to making lots of money without producing anything.

Unfortunately for Cramer, a funny thing happened on the way to his canonization. Like his near-namesake, Cosmo (aka Michael Richard’s character in Seinfeld), Mad Money’s Cramer took on one cause too many. While Cramer supported Obama in the fall, he has more recently been a staunch critic of the President’s handling of the banking crisis. Cramer surely thought he was on solid ground here; after all, his entire network had turned into a festival of Barack bashing, one that nearly rivals Fox News. Why, Cramer must have thought, would anyone want to single him out and try to destroy his reputation?

To answer that question, we need ask but one man: Jon Stewart. The comic actor turned faux-news anchor is rapidly positioning himself as the most valuable figure in American journalism today. Hyperbole? Not at all. Watching Mr. Stewart dissect Cramer on national television over the past week was worthy of Harvard – the Med School, that is. I’ll give Cramer credit for having the class to come on The Daily Show and confront his critic face to face. But all that accomplished was to allow Stewart to humiliate Cramer nearly as much as “Client Number 9” was humiliated at the Mayflower. Watch this clip and decide for yourself. Have you seen a more thorough evisceration by a journalist of the schmucks who have run Wall Street to the ground, all the while reveling at their own brilliance in playing games with other people’s money? Say what you want about the tough times on Wall Street, but the CNBC crowd and its constituents who whine about Obama’s raising taxes on the rich are still sitting pretty in mansions from Bergen County to Scarsdale to Greenwich, whereas the bulk of their fellow investors across the country are beginning to wonder if they’ll EVER be able to retire. You’ll forgive Stewart if he’s beginning to wonder if our definition of a Ponzi scheme isn’t a bit too narrow.

I look at a guy like Cramer and I’m reminded of that old ad campaign where the consumers are told that they could “have it all” – three piece suits AND rock ‘n roll. Cramer must have thought he had it all. Unlike his buddy Spitzer, who had to wage wars against Wall Street and, later, Albany Republicans, Cramer could be a friend to everyone … and get rich in the process. At the same time that he was rolling in the dough, he was comporting himself on the airwaves like a party-animal, even backslapping on such mainstream programs as Morning Joe.

Then came Stewart. His rebuke was quite simple -- it’s one thing to be a wild-and-crazy celebrity and make money for it; it’s another thing to be a charlatan who recklessly deprives people of their savings. As Stewart demonstrated, Cramer and his network told middle class people that they could TRUST his recommendations on what to do with their nest eggs, when in fact he didn’t have a friggen clue what he was talking about. Worse yet, Stewart pointed out, Cramer once publicly joked about playing the kind of games with the financial system that could have actually gotten him and his cronies in trouble if the regulators weren’t such idiots.

In short, thanks to Jon Stewart, America now can see Cramer in the same light as that other former Harvard graduate student, George W. Bush. Both are a couple of frivolous frat-boy types who had been having the time of their lives at the expense of the American public. Clearly, Stewart is saying, we cannot afford any more of those celebrities.

Right now, with the possible exception of March Madness, Stewart is the best thing going on TV. I often joke that my wife, another member of the HLS Class of ’84, would dump me in two seconds if she could be with Stewart instead. Maybe that’s not true, maybe she has a tad more fidelity than Mr. Spitzer, but I suspect that if she could spend an evening … or a night … with any celebrity, it would be Mr. Stewart. And who could blame her? The Daily Show anchor never went to a private college, let alone Harvard Law School, but he has demonstrated himself to be a far more accomplished verbal swordsman than one of HLS’s most prominent graduates. So much for the value of an Ivy League education.

Sunday, March 08, 2009


Let me begin by mentioning how relieved I am that this winter is now essentially over in the Washington, D.C. area. Yesterday, we enjoyed 70 degree weather – and this was only five days after a snowstorm. Meteorologists report that highs in the 30s and below are gone for the winter, and today is expected to hit 72. That means that if you’re not from here, please visit! Washington in the spring is beautiful … and it's especially beautiful when the city is run by a President who actually makes us proud instead of ashamed.

Please now indulge a few announcements, one of which is especially gratifying. This past Thursday, my daughter Hannah released her second CD, “Exhale Your Blues.” Hannah is a gifted singer/songwriter whose first CD, “Last Lights on in Town,” was primarily recorded when she was 15 years old and yet was nominated for a Washington Area Music Award in the category of Best Contemporary Folk Album. Her sound has been compared by music critics to that of Suzanne Vega and Natalie Merchant. I should think it would appeal to a wide range of tastes.

Exhale Your Blues demonstrates significant growth on Hannah’s part, both as a songwriter and a singer. She covers a range of topics, from the drudgery of work, to woman abuse, to euthanasia. And yes – there are a few love songs too, but my personal favorite is an ode to a tree. There’s not a weak song on the album, and if you bite the bullet and buy the CD, I can almost guarantee that you will enjoy it. To purchase Exhale Your Blues, sample some of Hannah’s music, or just learn more about her, go to

Next, I’d like to announce that a new essay is available on my website ( The essay can be found on the “Annual Purim Speeches” page under the name “Purim 2009.” The essay is a slightly bulked up version of a speech I delivered last night in front of 50 people, most of whom were Jewish, which calls for Jews and Muslims to commit themselves to a substantive dialogue. I would ask you to read this essay whether or not you are Jewish or Muslim, and especially if you have had little exposure to Islamic teachings. It’s time that educated people stop indulging their own ignorance when it comes to that religion.

Last, but not least, I would like to recommend an Internet cite that single-handedly eviscerates the GOP charge that Barack is using the U.S. tax system to bring about socialism. Go to – or simply Google “highest tax rates in U.S. history” and go to the first cite. You will find there a list of the top U.S. marginal income tax rates from 1913 to the present.

What that document shows is that: in the year 1950, under Republican President Dwight Eisenhower, the top marginal income tax rate consistently exceeded 90%; in the 1970s, under Republican Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, the top marginal income tax rate equaled or exceeded 70%; and in the 1980s, under Republican icon Ronald Reagan, the top marginal income tax rate equaled or exceeded 50% for a period of six years. The chart also shows that under Democratic President Bill Clinton, the top marginal tax rate was never as high as 40%, and it is precisely that sub-40% rate that Barack Obama is attempting to replicate.

From reading that chart, nobody in their right mind would think of Obama as a socialist – particularly when you take into account that our nation is even more economically polarized than it has been in decades. If any recent presidents were to be viewed as socialists, the better candidates would be Republicans like Eisenhower, Nixon or Ford.

The GOP knows damned well that Obama is no more of a socialist than Ronald “50% marginal tax rate” Reagan. Reagan increased federal spending to build up national defense, and Obama will increase spending to pursue a domestic agenda, but that hardly makes either one “red” (or even “pink”). Rather than witnessing a return to socialism, we’re simply witnessing a return to red-baiting.

Republicans like Rush, and the legions of politicians he controls like a mob-boss, should stop claiming to be disciples of Reagan and instead admit their devotion to Joseph McCarthy. He’s the real face of the modern Republican Party – Limbaugh may be its buttocks, but McCarthy is its face.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009


As a blogger, I’m definitely feeling the heat. My schedule this week (and this weekend) was supposed to be jammed packed, and I knew I’d have little time to blog. What I didn’t know was that I’d be bitten by the bug, beginning Sunday night. Yesterday morning, I felt pretty normal. By noon, however, my temperature reached 99, and by two or three in the afternoon, it had reached the triple digits. It remained there for the rest of day.

It’s now Tuesday morning. Time to type fast.

Let me begin by saying that our President has been primed from the get-go to unify this country. To be sure, his voting record in the Senate was definitely progressive, and he trumpeted several progressive initiatives on the campaign trail. But Barack is a centrist in his style, and he planned to select advisers who are centrist in substance – just look at all the cartwheels he turned to put Republicans in the Cabinet. That’s why he was seen as governing as a center-left politician, which is precisely what the nation appeared to want after eight years of Dick Cheney and his frat-boy sidekick.

Some people don’t understand the value of governing from near the center, but Barack totally gets it. He has always understood that, particularly when times are tough, a President needs the full support of the American people. Successful Presidents are generally optimistic, but there are times when they must call for sacrifice from the entire public. In order for those calls to be answered, as they once were for FDR, it’s imperative that the needed sacrifices are seen as being shared broadly, rather than incurred only by a small group of Americans.

Now let’s insert the Republicans into the equation. It seems indisputable that the party is led by incendiary Rush Limbaugh. Rush doesn’t beat around the bush; he wants Barack to fail, and if that means the American economy has to fail, so be it! He is calling for complete governmental paralysis, or if you prefer, a Hooverian strategy. Hell, maybe the better analogy is Nero; Rush would have the Government invest all its money in fiddles so that we could all listen to sweet music while our nest eggs burn.

The beauty of the new Republican approach is that most of the GOP leaders are so filthy rich that they really aren’t worried if the Dow drops below 5000, the unemployment rate hits 15%, or the exurbs are littered with foreclosure sales. Of course, the curious thing is that Rush commands an army of ditto heads who aren’t nearly so rich, and yet still support the mouth that roars. Anyway, curious or not, that’s the reality, as Michael Steele can attest. In the GOP today, you don’t mess with Rush. And Rush has declared total war against Barack’s Presidency.

Are you all convinced yet about what I said in last week’s blogpost: that even if you are a progressive, you must admit that the implosion of the Republican Party is bad for America? I’m definitely not going to withdraw that thesis. As an example of what the GOP has done to paralyze the media, just look at Keith Olbermann’s show last evening (Monday, March 2nd). Admittedly, Olbermann is a bit of a goofball, but his obsessions reflect those of many on the left, including many in the media. Yesterday was the day the Dow slid below 7000 without even a hiccup, after it was revealed that we would be bailing out AIG to the tune of another $30 billion (on top of the $150 billion those clowns already were given, I mean “lent”). The AIG situation raised some pretty serious questions, wouldn’t you say? Not, apparently, to Olbermann. Virtually his entire program was spent bashing the Republicans. When he wasn’t ridiculing Rush, it was Steele, or if not Steele, it was O’Reilly, and when it wasn’t O’Reilly, it was Cheney … Bush … or Bush’s Department of Justice. I watched to hear if Olbermann would mention anything other than the GOP, and had to wait for 56 minutes of his one-hour show until, finally, he decided to ridicule Blagojevich. That wasn’t exactly the serious topic I had in mind, but at least it was a respite from GOP bashing.

So this is where we’re at. We have a public who, at the moment, would prefer to be governed via a center-left agenda. We have a President who is game to implement such an agenda, and who is working hard to garner support from both his own (majority) party and the minority party. We have an economy that is in dire straights and that requires us all to work together to solve our problems. We have a minority party that’s determined to ensure that the President fails. And we have a majority party composed of many who are so obsessed with the minority party that they can hardly think about anything else, including how to solve our economic problems.

It’s a formula for disaster.

One way of illustrating the mess is to look at this silly “economic redistribution” debate. At the outset, I’d like to suggest that Barack made a strategic error in sticking with his campaign promises not to raise taxes for Americans making under $250,000 per year. You can debate whether that campaign promise made sense one year ago. It surely makes no sense now. Stimulus packages are vital at a time like this. Believe me, I supported the one that was recently signed into law. But the symbolism in raising taxes ONLY on the top five percent of incomes is idiotic. Talk about sending a message that the sacrifices shall NOT be shared! My family makes less than $250,000 per year, but we could afford a tax increase, and we live near Washington, D.C. Nobody can tell me that people who live in Peoria and pull in $235,000 each year can’t afford a tax increase. Stated simply, if a higher percent of people were asked to sacrifice, it might make it easier to sell what Barack must do the most: increase the taxes on the REALLY rich to well above what they were paying under the Clinton administration.

Thanks to the policies that have been around since Reagan, many Americans have so much money that they’re not saving for their great-great-grandchildren. We have people making millions of dollars per year. And people with a net worth of literally billions – even tens of billions. Could they not afford to pay more in taxes? More to the point, why are we afraid to ask them to pay? The answer is obvious – because Barack hasn’t yet made the case for shared sacrifice. He’s still living in a dream world. He’s still telling us that only 5% of Americans need to give anything up. He’s still telling us that, with only minor exceptions, the richest of the rich need be taxed at no higher a rate than that of the soaring 90s. Hell, he’s still saying that next year, the gross domestic product can be expected to grow at a rate of 3.2%. You read that correctly: Obama’s budget PROJECTS a growth rate of 3.2% NEXT YEAR. So where’s the crisis?

Clearly, Barack is unwilling fully to level with us about the extent of our problems. But that could be said about many Presidents. What’s different about this one is that he is quickly becoming the face of bailouts, a concept that can’t possibly sit well with the residents of a staunchly capitalist society. I must admit that the bailouts have me puzzled too. I recognize why we must bail some companies out, but again -- where are the calls for sacrifice? Why are we bailing out the same incompetent companies over and over with so few strings attached? Why, for example, aren’t we freezing compensation for their staffs? As a lawyer for the Government, my compensation is frozen at little over $150,000 (meaning that I didn’t even get the full cost of living increase of some of less-compensated colleagues). Why do I have to make that sacrifice if I didn’t fail on my job, whereas bankers can fail miserably and continue to make multiples of that amount?

Finally, while we’re still on the subject of economics, can someone explain why the United States must spend so much of our resources protecting the security of Europe and Iraq? Economically, there are few forms of spending less stimulative than maintaining troops and weapons oversees. But we seem more than willing to continue with our Cold War mentality that the U.S. must be the world’s policeman. When will some of our allies pitch in as equal partners? Why, for example, do we need to maintain 35,000-50,000 troops INDEFINITELY in Iraq even after our participation in the “war” has ended, whereas other nations won’t have to commit any troops at all? Barack didn’t ask for that stinking war, and his Government shouldn’t have to pay for it until the end of days.

Again, the key concept here is shared sacrifice. Barack needs to successfully make the case to the nation and the world that we all must pitch in together. Everyone who can give must be asked to do so in a meaningful and fair way. Right now, I’m not sure that he has made the case. But … even if the Biblical God were to tap him on the shoulder, teach him precisely who should be asked to sacrifice and to what degree, and inspire him to communicate those teachings in precisely the wisest and most eloquent manner … I still fear that Rush and his fellow Republicans would work diligently to make Barack fail.

That, my friends, is the true state of the union. It’s not quite as uplifting as Barack’s summary, but can you honestly tell me it’s less realistic?