Saturday, January 19, 2013

Four for a Fortnight


            Next weekend, I am happy to say that I will be in my “adopted home state” of Minnesota, visiting my daughter Rebecca at Carleton College.  Consequently, this post will have to suffice for an entire fortnight.   

For your reading pleasure, I offer you thoughts on four separate topics.  You can expect to hear from me again in early February.  

First, what does everyone think about the Israeli elections coming up next week?  Yes, that’s right, the elections that nobody is talking about.  Normally, the American media pays attention when the Middle East’s oldest democracy opens its voting booths.   The problem however, is that this time around you can’t find any prognosticator who gives the centrist or leftist parties a chance – at least not a chance to control the government (as opposed to serving in a back-benching capacity).  Clearly, the rightward shift in Israeli politics has become tectonic.   What it hasn’t been is sudden.  

Some might trace the current hawkish trend among the Israelis to the Palestinian’s refusal to accept the deal that Clinton was trying to broker in 2000.   Others might point to the Palestinian response to the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005, or even to the first Israeli Gaza War in 2008.  All of these developments have caused Israelis in increasing numbers to question whether the Palestinians can ever be trusted as partners for peace.   That’s another way of saying that Israelis, in droves, are giving up hope in the two-state solution, because they don’t believe that enough Palestinians will willingly allow one of those states to be “Jewish.” 

As a result, progressive Jews are beginning to sound these days like Chicken Little.  Not only have many lost their respect for the Israeli Government, but they are also becoming alienated from the Jewish State itself.  Talk about an oi vay!

Well, my friends, I can’t lie to you and predict that Bibi Netanyahu will taste defeat this week.  He’ll be re-elected for sure, and the government he’ll form will make the hawks of yesteryear look like George McGovern by comparison.  But this Purim, February 23rd, I intend to deliver an essay with the goal of lifting up our spirits when it comes to the prospects for Middle East peace.  I might even post that essay on this blog, so look for it.  It will reveal my continued faith that, despite all the Jeremiads about the extremism in Israel and Palestine, I do foresee light at the end of this tunnel.  After all, we are talking about the most beloved real estate in the world – the land adored by the entire family of Abraham -- and just like all other family feuds, this one ultimately must come to end.  Insanity can only go on so long before the critical mass of our species comes to its senses.  

Don’t believe me?  Consider that we have now survived seven full decades since the Manhattan Project began, and we’re still here.   That wouldn’t have happened if our instincts for peace were stronger than our instincts for domination and violence.  So keep the faith.  And join me in working hard to support that faith.  Without hard work, faith and prayers can only go so far. 

Second, Ecclesiastes said that there is a time for war and a time for peace.  Well, I say that there’s also a place for war and a place for peace.  The Holy Land is an example of the latter.  Our attitude toward steroid-abusing athletes should, in my view, be an example of the former.

I know that a certain cyclist has been in the news lately, but I’m not a cycling aficionado.  I’d rather talk about a sport that I actually follow: baseball.   This year, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemons, two of the most dominant players in the sport’s history became eligible for the Baseball Hall of Fame.  Also eligible were the sluggers who, in 1998, electrified the baseball world with their Homeric hoists – Mark McGuire and Sammy Sosa.  Yet, when all the votes were tallied, none of these suspected drug abusers were listed on even 40 percent of the ballots cast (75% is needed for election to the Hall).  In fact, the pall that these and other stars of their generation cast was so great that nobody else was elected to the Hall this year, not even worthy candidates whose names have never been linked to steroids.  It’s as if the baseball writers wanted to send the same message to this past generation of players that the Biblical God sent to the Israelis who left Egypt:  if enough of you disobey, you ALL will be wandering in the wilderness!

I would hope that the Hall of Fame voters don’t keep this up for a full 40 years.  But I REALLY like the statement they made this year, and it wouldn’t break my heart to see it repeated next year either, when such obviously deserving candidates as Greg Maddox and Tom Clavine come up for a vote.  We need to keep ringing this bell over and over and over again: no more PEDs!  Performance enhancing drugs are ruining sports.  They are destroying the physical and mental health of athletes in the professional ranks, in college, and even in high school.  Those who abuse them don’t only cheat the sport or abuse their own long-term health, but they are implicitly harming the health of other players by, in essence, requiring them to take drugs in order to compete.  As a result, they are better analogized to drug dealers, not drug users.

I often hear talking heads on TV or radio make excuses for the PED abusers: they just wanted to be able to ply their trade when they got injured; they just wanted to be able to compete on a level playing field with those who started resorting to PEDs; they were just doing what their coaches condoned, or even encouraged.  Blah, blah, blah. 

Folks, I’m not saying that the steroid takers are evil people.  What I am saying is that they’re not Hall of Famers.  And we as fans need to throw our support behind those who wish to deter PED use through various means, including not only the symbolism of Hall of Fame votes but, more importantly, punitive and comprehensive drug testing policies (the ones so commonly balked at by the players’ unions).  The sooner we clean up professional sports, the safer it will be to compete at every level.

Third, speaking of comprehensive policies, let’s give a big round of applause to President Obama for his recent effort to attack another scourge on our society – guns and ammo.  Oh, I know: we can’t say we’re “anti-gun.”  That wouldn’t be politically correct in this gun-adoring country.   But it’s clear that in the liberal parts of coastal America, most of us really dislike guns, and for folks like us, it is clear that the President’s plan is about as sweeping as we could possibly hope for.  He’s fighting for criminal background checks, an assault weapons ban, a ten-round limit on magazines, the elimination of cop-killing, armor-piercing bullets, terminating the freeze on research involving gun violence, increasing resources designed to improve the mental health of students, and various other measures.  This is bold leadership – just the kind that many of us having been calling for since he was first elected President in 2008.

I hate to quibble, but there is one thing I wished the President could have added to his massive proposal.  I wish he could have taken a more affirmative stand on the need to curb violence in movies and video games.   I realize that there is no research support for the linkage between mass murders and violent programming.  But common sense indicates that Hollywood’s love affair with gun violence doesn’t exactly make us safer, if you get my drift.  Moreover, by refusing to assign a larger role to Hollywood, President Obama creates the impression that he is simply throwing red meat to his liberal base, and ignoring the legitimate comments of conservatives.   Massacre control shouldn’t be a partisan issue, and those of us who are concerned about the violence epidemic in America had better seek a broad tent when it comes to garnering allies.   The President is missing a big opportunity to do just that by taking on Hollywood violence.  I love Quentin Tarantino as much as the next guy, but taking him on could be Obama’s Sister Souljah moment.  

Maybe President Obama is indeed planning to take on Hollywood as part of his anti-violence program.  Maybe we’ll hear more about violent filmmakers during his State of the Union address, or perhaps he intends to deliver a passionate speech on the topic at around the time of the Academy Awards.  I certainly hope so.  Because the longer he ignores that side of the equation, the easier it will be for the NRA to capitalize on his omission and make him sound like he’s just playing politics.  At the moment, though, that organization seems hell bent on shooting itself in the foot, and from all appearances, its magazine has an endless number of rounds to draw from.  How fitting.

Fourth and finally, I would ask that on Monday morning, while our nation celebrates a day off of work, we take a few moments to reflect on exactly why it is we won’t be going to go to the office.  Martin Luther King, Jr. doesn’t have his face on American currency.  He didn’t sign the Declaration of Independence, didn’t free the slaves, and isn’t represented on Mount Rushmore.  He didn’t get us out of a Great Depression or lead us to victory in war.  So does it make sense that we selected him, and only him, as the one 20th century figure whose birth merits a holiday? 

In a word, yes!  More than any other recent figure, Martin Luther King, Jr. reminds us that racism, classism, and war mongering have been a profound part of American history, but do not need to be part of America’s future.   He is the face of the movement without which we would have no President Obama or Justice Thomas.  Those of us who cannot imagine a time when American blacks and whites drank from separate fountains or used separate bathrooms have MLK above all others to thank.  

Today, we tend to take for granted the great figures of our past.   Monday is a day to remember one of the greatest.  Let’s use it wisely.

P.S. -- Earl Weaver (1930-2013) -- RIP, and from every old-time baseball fan who grew up in Maryland, thanks for the memories.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Hillary's Next Job


            It won’t be long before Hillary Clinton is released from the burden of being our nation’s Secretary of State.   It surely sounded like a decent enough gig when she took it.  But it has worn on her severely, and left her exhausted and perhaps even dangerously ill.  I’m not a doctor, but I can easily enough imagine the strain of traveling to 112 countries in four years while in your 60s.  That sounds like hell to me, and I’m more than a decade younger than she is.

            Hillary desperately needs a rest.  She needs to put away all her briefing books, confine her reading to novels and either the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal (the only two remaining serious newspapers in the United States), and get the hell out of dodge.  She might want to go to Hawaii or the Caribbean -- someplace tropical, where pleasure is worshiped, pain is avoided, and workaholism is met with two parts condescension and five parts laughter.  She needs to put aside her passions to nurture, instruct, repair, battle … even to learn.  She just needs to relax. 

That’s her job, and that will remain the case not just for days or weeks, but for months – maybe even for years.  Two, to be exact.  If she can pull it off, she will have done everything we need her to do.  And then, we must do our job:  to elect her, in a landslide, as the 45th President of the United States.    

Like most Americans, my views about Hillary Clinton have swung dramatically over the years.  In 1992, I was tremendously enthusiastic about both Clintons and even joined the Saxophone Club.   I viewed Hillary as extremely intelligent, diligent, loyal, progressive.…   What’s not to like?   

The bloom fell off the rose during her ill-fated attempt to reform our nation’s health care system.  I began to see her as monarchical and rigid – hardly the kinds of qualities we need in a statesperson.   

You could say that I had a love-hate relationship with the idea of Hillary Clinton until the lead up to the Iraq War, when she famously cast a vote to authorize the conflict.   After coming down solidly AGAINST that war, I saw her vote as a betrayal of her so-called progressive values.  To me, she was just another Washington phony – an opportunist who is interested primarily in power for its own sake.  My skepticism about Hillary only grew as she squared off against candidate Barack Obama, who appealed to me (and most other progressives) as a man of tremendous character and inspiration.   Team Barack became my team; Hillary was the opponent.    

Then, Barack Obama took office … and so did Hillary.  She had joined our team again, and that allowed us to give her a fresh look.  Soon, it became clear that she approached her job as Secretary of State in just the way we Washingtonians respect.  It was also the way she approached her job as the Junior Senator for the State of New York.

Commonly, ultra-ambitious people come to Washington with visions of constantly rising to the top.   So whenever they are given a job to do, they spent as much time thinking about how to advance their career as they spend on doing their work.   Not Hillary.  She keeps her nose to the grindstone, approaches her tasks with the appropriate humility, works her butt off at the mundane tasks at hand, learns her subject matter cold, and impresses the hell out of everyone in the process.

She’s now done that in two of the most important jobs in Government.   And consequently, she is universally appreciated on both sides of the aisle in Capitol Hill, and in Presidential palaces throughout the world.  

Barack Obama won the nomination for President in 2008 for two reasons: (a) his staff was more skilled with utilizing the new media, and (b) he was better than Hillary at the poetry of statecraft.  Even today, if you want a Presidential speechwriter, I’m not sure you call Hillary Clinton.  Unlike her husband and her current boss, she is strictly prosaic.  But that doesn’t mean she lacks vision.  And when you combine great vision, diligence, passion, and the near universal respect of her peers, you have the ingredients for a truly transformative President.

Many will point out that unlike our current President, who sometimes seems suited to be a minister (and I don’t mean a cabinet minister), Hillary is a fighter who doesn’t play by the Marquess of Queensberry rules.  That’s certainly a fair point.  But it begs the question: is that a problem or an asset?  In case you can’t tell, Washington has turned into a hornets’ nest.   If a President comes across as a nice guy, the opposing party will tear him to shreds – or at least shut down the Government while trying.  To me, Hillary’s ruthlessness is a major tool in her arsenal.  She doesn’t need to re-read Machiavelli:  she instinctively understands that it is better to be feared than loved.  But when you think about it, as Junior Senator, she became both feared AND loved by her colleagues.  It was only the rest of us out in TV land who remained skeptics.  We saw her prosaic nature, we could pick apart some of her votes, and we had plenty of Clinton fatigue after living through eight years and one impeachment proceeding.   Plus, we weren’t able to see her work her magic up close and personal.  So when it was time to determine whether she would be the first woman President of the United States, we opted out.

That was then, however.  This is now.  If her health holds up – meaning, at a minimum, that she must do what doesn’t come naturally and rest long enough to regain her strength – it is time for this country to give the woman her chance.  I cannot imagine anyone paying more dues to merit that job.  She’s been an attorney, a first lady, a Senator, and a Secretary of State.  She has clearly learned and grown along the way.  She has had tremendous failures and obvious successes, but the trend is upward.  Try to find anyone in Washington who will criticize her tenure in Foggy Bottom -- you can’t!   And what that tenure has done has reminded people of just how quickly she came to be seen as one of the leading members of the U.S. Senate.
If anyone can unify this Government, it’s Hillary.  Nobody else has the gravitas.   And lest you think that Hillary will become an unusually “polarizing” figure in the hinterland, think again.  There was a point when the Clinton name was the epitome of polarizing, but a lot has changed since then.  First, Bill became a friend of the Bushes, thereby humanizing him among the more moderate wing of the Republican Party.  Then, Hillary ran against that demon-of-demons to the American right: Barack Obama.  You know the old saw, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”  Well, once Obama and Hillary entered that Octagon and began duking it out, Hillary gained the sympathies of right wingers all over the country.   No, I’m not saying she’s Fox News’ favorite politician; I’m not delusional.  But I do vividly recall how respectfully my Republican friends spoke about her as soon as it became clear that her loss would be Obama’s gain.  I’m guessing that respect remains – because like I said, EVERY American appreciates what it means to have a Secretary of State who visits 112 countries and makes hardly a gaffe.  

Oh yeah, and then there’s her gender.  Isn’t it time, folks?  We’re talking about a country that has been around for 240 years and has never been led by a female.   I’m not much for tokenism, but enough is enough.  There is no living American who can come close to matching Hillary’s qualifications for the Presidency.   She has succeeded at the upper levels of the Executive and the Legislative Branches of the United States.  For that matter, she even has accumulated valuable White House experience.  She has lived for many years in the South, the Midwest, and the East.  She has demonstrated a commitment to helping those most in need, as well as a love for policy analysis.  And as discussed above, she has garnered the tremendous respect of those who lead both political parties.  What more can we ask from a candidate than these qualifications?   

It remains possible, of course, that Hillary’s health will further deteriorate.  She has overtaxed herself in this last job; that is painfully obvious to any observer.  I’m expecting her to recover, but that remains to be seen.  Still, let’s assume I’m right.  Let’s assume that Hillary is fit, rested and ready to wrestle come January 2015.   I say that we all need to jump on that bandwagon.  We need a President who can accomplish big things, whether it comes to dealing with the National Debt, tax fairness, climate change, Middle East Peace, or a number of other major issues.   She is clearly at the top of the list. 

It is not too soon to ring the bell for Hillary.  Talk her up to your friends.  Don’t be surprised if some Republicans might even be open to her candidacy, particularly Republican women.   As long as her name is “Clinton,” she’ll have her detractors, but you don’t need 100% of the vote to win in a landslide.  I never voted for Reagan, but I came to respect him.  And my prediction is that Hillary can gain that same kind of respect from Republicans that Reagan earned with Democrats.  

Reagan changed this country profoundly.  I’ve been waiting ever since for a Democrat to do the same.  Hillary just might be the person.  We should fight for her election.

Saturday, January 05, 2013

Oh, Those Crazy Kids


Seeing as how I just came back from my best vacation in years, it would seem odd to let loose another Jeremiad.  Truly, blogs are great forums for venting about all things political (or, should I say, all things human?), but it seems petty to vent after you have spent eight days seeing old friends, really cool museum exhibits, amazing topography, and your college team win the Rose Bowl for the first time since you matriculated there 3 ½ decades ago.  (That’s right: three of the 93,000+ visitors to this year’s Rose Bowl were named Spiro.)   So yes, I’m in too good a mood to lament in earnest about the sorry state of the Union.   

Consider what I’m about to say in the proper spirit of humor, then.  I feel like an adult who, having just watched some silly teenagers make fools of themselves, is forced to shake his head and say “Oh, those crazy kids.”   In this case, the crazy kids are President Obama, Vice President Biden and the boys and girls from Congress.

Let’s start with Biden.  This New Year’s Day, everyone’s favorite Joe could be found on newspapers throughout the nation smiling from ear to ear.   He was the one the President tasked to go to Capitol Hill and deliver a deal to save us from the so-called “fiscal cliff.”  It doesn’t matter that virtually no Democrat I know was worried about that cliff and that most would just as soon watch us go back to the tax levels of the Clinton years.  For some reason, this Administration wanted to treat that prospect like the precipice to end all precipices.  And if that meant that the Administration would have to make massive concessions to the principles of progressive taxation in order to avert this “disaster,” so be it.  

If a picture is worth a thousand words, the most indelible impression left from the cliff negotiations was that smile on Joe’s face.   It’s as if he was as happy about the results of the fiscal cliff negotiations as I am about the results of the Rose Bowl game.  In my case, though, I have the memories of witnessing the victory of my beloved Stanford Cardinal.  What “victory” did Joe witness?   I have heard plenty of Democratic talking heads try to explain it to me, but I still can’t figure that one out.

Surely, President Obama knows why this is such a great victory, because he’s the one who is sending out minions to praise the deal.  One of their key talking points is that the deal preserves the present tax levels for fully 98 percent of the American public, which was the same percentage that the President spoke about during the campaign.   Technically, that statement is accurate; the fiscal cliff deal does preserve the tax cuts for 98 percent of Americans.  But what the Administration doesn’t like to acknowledge is that the deal also preserves the Bush tax cuts for more than half of the remaining two percent.   We can’t even say that all the “1 percenters” are going to feel the sting of higher taxes, for a number of those wealthy people also fall under the magic $450,000-per-year line.   So, under the deal that has made “smiling Joe” so happy, virtually all of us can rest assured that our own tax level will remain as it was under President George W. Bush.   And we can also relish the idea that the new tax levels have been made “permanent” – meaning that it will be much more difficult for any progressive political party to show up and try to change that.
All hail the deal!   All hail the end of progressive taxation in America.

In normal circumstances, that prospect wouldn’t thrill me.  But given how much fun I had last week, I can’t begrudge Biden’s right to smile.   I feel like smiling whenever I think about Stanford’s stout second-half defense and how it left Wisconsin scoreless.  And that game makes me smile even though all I did was sit on my duff and yell a bit, whereas Joe actually played a major part in the Administration’s purported “victory.”   Maybe he was misguided, maybe not, but clearly, his boss supported his efforts.  He did the job asked of him: he averted the cliff.   He protected the Bush tax cuts for 99+ percent of America, and that result somehow made his President happy.  So I’m as happy for Joe as I am for Stanford’s linebackers.

But what puzzles me more than Joe’s reaction is that of the Congress.   The last time I checked, we were supposed to have literally hundreds of Democrats in Congress – including well over 50 Senators.  And none of them works directly for the President. So why did virtually all of them endorse this deal?  Why did the lion’s share of the deal’s nay-sayers come from the Republican Party?   Why, for example, did Vermont Senator Bernard Sanders, a so-called “socialist,” endorse a deal that is so tepid on taxing the rich?   How do these Democrats think we’re going to pay for our bloated health care system, our generous social security payments, our protect-the-world military, or all the other services we expect from our government?   Correct me if I’m wrong, but if our spending needs are rapidly growing, due both to an aging population and a national debt that has reached Brobdingnagian proportions, won’t we need to INCREASE our taxes?  And won’t we need to increase tax rates for more than a fraction of one percent of our population?    And if even our “progressive” statesmen won’t fight for these principles, exactly who will?   

Oh, those crazy kids.
Of course, the conventional wisdom is that things are only going to get crazier.  It is generally accepted that by entering into this deal on taxes, Obama has lost his leverage with the Republicans and will really be forced to make major concessions when it comes time to increase the debt ceiling.  At that point, he will have no ability to simply do nothing and let the tax rates fall to their pre-Bush levels.  If he does nothing, the Republicans will say “no deal,” the U.S. Government will stop paying its bills, the economy will tank, and who will get blamed?  That’s right – the President.   Clearly, he’s not going to let that happen, and the Republicans must be licking their chops at the prospect that there will be massive Democratic concessions to follow.  In fact, thanks to the fiscal cliff negotiations, the Democrats won’t be able to offer lower taxes for those who make $250,000-$450,000 per year, because they’ve already conceded on that point.  So much for smiling Joe’s victory.

The good news in all this is that when it comes to the next round of negotiations, we are bound to see some developments that are truly beneficial to the country.  There are loopholes in the tax system that everyone should agree must be closed, and government spending that everyone should agree must be cut.  Democrats and Republicans might engage in some posturing to suggest that they support either ridiculous loopholes or excessive spending, but in truth, there is legitimate room here for common ground.  The question is, will there be enough common ground to enable these wild and crazy kids to reach an agreement that truly puts our nation’s fiscal house in order, and does so equitably?  On that point, I have my doubts.  And when it comes to speculating about who will be the ones to make the most significant concessions, my bet is on the President, his guy Joe, and their Democratic followers in Congress.

Look at it this way – during recent decades, whenever we’ve had a Republican in the White House, he has figured out a way to assert his authority and enact solidly conservative legislation.  But when we’ve had a Democrat in the White House, he has invariably agreed to legislation that reflects massive compromises with the conservative party.  The result is that we’ve been oscillating between conservative rule and “moderate” rule, and have not been able to see what we used to see in America – a truly progressive administration.

As a progressive myself, there are weeks when that would make me sad or perhaps even mad.   But not this week.  Stanford finally won the Rose Bowl, and I was there to see it.  As for the boys and girls on Capitol Hill and Pennsylvania Avenue, I’ll just put them in the same category that I put Jerry, Elaine, George and Cosmo Kramer.  Let them talk about themselves like they’re great heroes who prevent us all from jumping off “cliffs.”   I’ll just look at them as gifted comedians.   And as long as they don’t take away my football games, I won’t fear their comedy.  At least not this week.