Thursday, May 28, 2009


The Machiavellian chameleon known as Richard Bruce Cheney has lately proven to be even more adaptable to surviving in a world without ethical oxygen than we’d have thought possible.

The former vice president, in a May 10th interview with Bob Schieffer on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” a freewheeling inquiry of Cheney in his new role as party spokesman by default.

Cheney took the occasion to double down on the partisan reflexes of the moment when Schieffer asked him whether former Secretary of State Colin Powell or talk-radio Doberman Rush Limbaugh were better appointed to be viewed as central to the future of the GOP.

"If I had to choose in terms of being a Republican, I'd go with Rush Limbaugh," he said. "My take on it was Colin had already left the party. I didn't know he was still a Republican."

Schieffer, his newsman’s spider-sense tingling, asked Cheney if he really thought Powell was "not a Republican."

"I just noted he endorsed the Democratic candidate for president this time, Barack Obama," Cheney said. "I assumed that that is some indication of his loyalty and his interest."

It’s well known that the Republican leadership wasn’t happy with Powell’s endorsement of Obama for the presidency. But while the movement conservatives like Limbaugh have called one of the most celebrated military men since Eisenhower everything but a child of God, mainstream conservatives recognize Powell’s value to the GOP as proof of its ability to redefine itself.

◊ ◊ ◊

It was with this in mind that Powell, patient and methodical as ever, responded to Cheney’s right-hand lead with a solid uppercut, last Sunday, on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”

Powell challenged Cheney on the legacy of the Bush administration both were a part of, saying that Republicans should not kowtow to "diktats that come from the right wing."

Responding to Limbaugh's calls for Powell to exit the GOP, a la defector Arlen Specter, Powell said, "Rush will not get his wish. And Mr. Cheney was misinformed. I am still a Republican."

Powell soundly took issue with Cheney over such war-related issues as the Guantánamo Bay prison, whose continued operation Cheney steadfastly supports.

"Mr. Cheney is not only disagreeing with President Obama's policy," Powell said. "He's disagreeing with President [George W.] Bush's policy. President Bush stated repeatedly to international audiences and to the country that he wanted to close Guantánamo. The problem he had was he couldn't get all the pieces together."

Ever the political shapeshifter (and maybe realizing he’d gone too far with the centrist conservatives that form more of a backbone of the party than the ideologues do), Cheney pivoted. In an interview with CNBC's Larry Kudlow, he said Powell is welcome back into the party and that Republicans would be "happy to have him."

KUDLOW: You kind of took a shot at General Colin Powell the other day, said you didn't know he was still a member of the Republican Party. He responded to you by saying that you were mistaken. He is a member of the Republican Party, and he regards himself a, quote, "Jack Kemp Republican," end quote. Could you react to what Mr. Powell is saying?

CHENEY: Well, we're happy to have General Powell in the Republican Party. I was asked a question about a dispute he was having, I think, with Rush Limbaugh, and I expressed the consent, the notion I had that he had already left since he endorsed Barack Obama for president. But I meant no offense to my former colleague. I wasn't seeking to rearrange his political identity.

KUDLOW: So you welcome him back into the party.

CHENEY: We're in the mode where we welcome everybody to the party.

Nothing like the drunk at a garden party inviting the guests to feel “welcome.”

◊ ◊ ◊

We’re beginning to see the first hint of a blowback against Cheney, a reaction from (for now) more principled, less ideologically-animated Republicans pushing back against Cheney’s increasingly inventive narrative of the Bush years and his role in them.

Ryan Grim of The Huffington Post reported:
Lawrence Eagleburger mocked Dick Cheney on Tuesday at a Brookings Institute forum, saying that the former vice president, whom he dubbed "benighted," has long exaggerated his position as a partisan in favor of removing Saddam Hussein from power during the first Gulf War. …

Eagleburger, a former secretary of state, is the highest-ranking Republican to challenge him.

"The arguments that were made later by some of the benighted people--oh, never mind. I will just say screaming and yelling about how the president should have gone after Saddam at that time were only made once it was a fairly clear that he could have done so. If he had done so it would have been taking the advice of certain people who became vice presidents later on," said Eagleburger.

Eagleburger’s shot came not long after Tom Ridge, former Pennysylvania governor and Homeland Security secretary, said on CNN that he disagreed with Cheney that the nation was less safe because of Obama's national-security policies. Talking to John King on Sunday, Ridge also said that the former recreational pharmaceutical enthusiast could be "shrill" and uses language in a way "that offend[s] very many."

"Rush Limbaugh has an audience of 20 million people. A lot of people listen daily to him and live by every word. But words mean things and how you use words is very important," Ridge, Bush said on CNN's “State of The Union.”

“It does get the base all fired up and he's got a strong following," he said. "But personally, if he would listen to me and I doubt if he would, the notion is express yourself but let's respect others opinions and let's not be divisive.”

◊ ◊ ◊

This has been building for months. Rep. John Duncan Jr. (R-Tenn.) told The back in March:

“He became so unpopular while he was in the White House that it would probably be better for us politically if he wouldn’t be so public ... But he has the right to speak out since he’s a private citizen.”

As the GOP experiences an unprecedented existential crisis — the proof of which is obvious in the fact that the question of whether Powell or Limbaugh signified the party’s future was asked in the first place — these voices of relative reason may be what’s needed to begin the process of rescuing the Republican party from itself.

They’re expressing the hope, faint though it may be, that Dick Cheney might do them and the party he purports to embrace the huge favor of returning to the secret undisclosed location he dwelled in for much of the last eight years.
Image credits: Cheney: White House (public domain).

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Songs of the South

The American South, region of contradictions — gentility juxtaposed with violence, emotional warmth neighbors with a punitive streak — revealed its dichotomous ways recently.

The war between the New South and the Old showed itself with two examples of how warring ideas and ideals manage to coexist in the same body, two more of the plus ça change moments that define us historically and today.

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Last week James Young, 53, was elected the mayor of Philadelphia, a town of about 8,000 people in east-central Mississippi. The victory made Young the first black mayor in the history of the town. Despite the town's 55 percent white majority, Young beat back Rayburn Waddell, the white incumbent, winning office by only 46 votes. Young, a paramedic and a Pentecostal minister, described the victory for CNN as "an atomic bomb of change."

Those formerly casual students of history who don’t recognize the name of Philadelphia, Miss., may recognize the names of James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Henry Schwerner instead.

The bodies of those three men were discovered by FBI agents near Philadelphia, Miss., on Aug. 4, 1964. The three men, civil rights workers who came south to register African Americans to vote, were shot to death sometime on June 21 of that year. Their Ford station wagon was set ablaze, their bodies were bulldozed 17 feet under an earthen dam.

In a federal trial in 1967, seven men were convicted of federal charges of conspiracy and violating the workers’ civil rights. They were sentenced to prison terms between three to 10 years. Killen, a former recruiter for the Ku Klux Klan, was tried for the killings, but beat the rap when one juror refused to vote to convict him. Nearly four decades later, in January 2005, Killen was arrested again, this time on state charges. He was convicted of manslaughter in June 2005.

Jim Prince, publisher of the Neshoba Democrat newspaper, told CNN that “Philadelphia will always be connected to what happened here in 1964, but the fact that Philadelphia, Mississippi, with its notorious past, could elect a black man as mayor, it might be time to quit picking on Philadelphia, Mississippi.”

For Young, who takes office in July, the future also begins now. “"The places where we were locked out, I'm gonna have the key," he said. "The places we couldn't go, I've got the key. No better way to say it than that."

◊ ◊ ◊

For some folks in Florida, the future begins … some other time.

The Confederate flag, that old touchstone of emotion in the South, is the issue in a dispute between the NAACP and the tens of thousands of Floridians who brandish the flag at one entertainment site as a point of pride in their heritage, a heritage whose banner symbolizes the enslavement and persecution of millions of African Americans not long enough ago.

Some of those in the Miami-Dade branch of the NAACP want the flag banned from the Homestead-Miami Motor Speedway. A boycott of a NASCAR event planned for Nov. 20-22 is being contemplated, an NAACP official told Fox News on Wednesday.

In an interview with Fox News, Homestead-Miami Motor Speedway president Curtis Gray articulated speedway policy on large flags of any kind in the stands.

But Gray also reflected an understanding of the limits of control on individual behavior. “We don't regulate the lawful behavior of our fans or prohibit free speech and expression of our guests,” Gray told Fox. “We can’t tell people what to wear. Where do you start? Where does it end, as far as individual expression?”

Chuck McMichael, leader of Sons of the Confederate Veterans, a group that promotes Confederate heritage, ominously told Fox that any attempts to block Confederate flags at the Speedway will be met with “some action.”

“Any time somebody starts talking about that, of course there's cause for concern,” he said. “The bottom line is I don't think they should ban [Confederate flags] because there's nothing wrong with them. It's just people showing pride in their heritage.”

We've gotten accustomed — maybe even spoiled — by the sense of a new America in the post-Obama-election world. In some ways there's a lot to celebrate. In other ways ... not so much.
Image credits: James Young: Still from CNN. Missing poster: FBI.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Obama's Supreme throwdown

President Obama today nominated New York federal appeals judge Sonia Sotomayor to become the 111th Justice of the Supreme Court, as well as the nation's first Hispanic and third woman to serve as Supreme Court Justice. Barring discovery of closet skeletons that eluded detection in her two previous vettings for the federal bench, Senate confirmation is probable due to the Democratic majority there.

These facts are the rallying cry for the next (and thoroughly expected) wave of attacks from Republican conservatives. They’ve vowed for weeks now to oppose whoever Obama named to the vacancy set to occur when Associate Justice David Souter steps down at the end of June.

Already it’s the usual suspects weighing in: talk-radio Doberman and former recreational pharmaceutical enthusiast Rush Limbaugh today loudly denounced Sotomayor as “racist”; Judicial Watch’s Tom Fitton adopted a similar viewpoint in his conservative blog, implying that Sotomayor would “put her feeling and politics above the rule of law.” Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee condemned her nomination (inexplicably calling her “Maria” in the process).

◊ ◊ ◊

But the critics in the right wing are facing an uphill battle that’s got less to do with being outnumbered in the Senate and more to do with their adopting the GOP’s customary strict-obstructionist position on all things Obama. This time, simply saying “No!” may not be enough. This nomination to the nation’s highest court complicates the inevitable, reflexively partisan reaction from the right, in major ways:

¶ Any effort at opposing Sotomayor’s nomination calls into question her previous nomination to a federal bench by a previous Republican president: George H.W. Bush in 1991. The conservatives can’t call Sotomayor’s qualifications into question without implicitly calling into question the judgment of one of their own. That’s problematic when you’re trying to mount a purely partisan attack like the one the conservatives have already begun.

¶ The Republican opposition to any Obama choice for the high court has already galvanized itself around Obama’s use of the word “empathy” to describe one of the characteristics that would help decide his choice. The Republican right has twisted the word into a partisan shibboleth, the club they’re using to suggest the word is code for a judicial philosophy that’s biased in favor of interest groups and special pleaders. They’re using this E-word against Sotomayor, working to paint her as some ideological hysteric determined to bend the Constitution to her warped, liberal will.

It’s a weak and utterly emotional argument at odds with the word’s dictionary definition (“ability to share in another’s emotions or feelings”), the fundamentally humanistic aspects of law dating back to the Magna Carta, and with the basically empathic endorsement of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness enshrined by the Framers in the Declaration of Independence.

The emotionalism that conservatives will attempt to arouse with the word “empathy” already works against them as a matter of our own national history. Empathy in the defense of justice is no vice.

¶ If the Republicans insist on a long and bruising confirmation fight, they certainly risk further alienating themselves from the nation’s Latino Americans. At more than 45 million in number, they’re more than a monolith; Hispanic Americans are, by sheer numbers and indicated by increased voter registrations, the new and emerging force in American politics.

The GOP suffered broad declines among Latino voters in the November election; with the 2010 midterms about 18 months away — in political terms, that’s the day after tomorrow —the Republican party can ill afford making more enemies among a voting bloc that’s pretty much deserted them already.

◊ ◊ ◊

Barack Obama has proven himself to be a president enamored of the careful decision, the reasoned and articulate defense, the circumspect reaction. But you have to believe Obama has thrown down the glove to the conservatives with something just shy of a schoolyard dare, all but defying the Party of No to oppose Sotomayor’s nomination. The GOP will rise to the bait of what it thinks is a tempting target, but there’s not much there there.

It’s thought that the graybeard Republicans of the Senate Judiciary Committee will slow-track Sotomayor’s nomination through the confirmation process, just to prove they can do it.

But the choice of Sotomayor for the Supreme Court — one of who knows how many opportunities for nomination President Obama may have in the next three years and eight months — points to the confidence of a president making good use of his ascendancy, and the weakness of a party bent on opposing him on reflex, rather than principle.
Image credit: Sotomayor and Obama: The White House. Magna Carta, 14th century manuscript: Public domain.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Obama’s A la Carte Address

President Obama spoke at the National Archives in Washington on Thursday, attempting to offer a grand strategy for dealing with the terrorism suspects at Guantánamo Bay, and more generally, a defense of his administration’s policies against terrorism. His backdrop — the federal facility where the country’s lifeblood documents are housed — was tellingly symbolic.

But Obama’s words themselves, stirring and impassioned, reflected a disconnect that can’t be papered over by the choice of the hall. Obama’s address finally gave people a chance to compare and contrast the distinctions between himself and his predecessor, George Bush. The gulf between the two hasn’t been as wide as we’d once been led to believe.

Obama has adopted an a la carte approach to implementing the U.S. national-security apparatus: an idea from the column A of his own administration, added to something from the column B of the Bush years. The result, which Obama essentially decided to defend in the Thursday speech, points to a president ironically communicating a message that’s out of sync with, if not out of touch with, the ideals of its messenger.

◊ ◊ ◊

“I believe with every fiber of my being that in the long run we also cannot keep this country safe unless we enlist the power of our most fundamental values,” Obama said. “The documents that we hold in this very hall — the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights — are not simply words written into aging parchment. They are the foundation of liberty and justice in this country, and a light that shines for all who seek freedom, fairness, equality and dignity in the world.”

Strong, tonic words, and more of the soaring oratory we’ve come to expect from this most rhetorically gifted American president of our time. But here begins the disconnect that’s apparent when you try to square the words with the actions of his administration in defense of those “fundamental values.”

Obama stressed the importance of maintaining “fidelity to our values,” and expressed “an abiding confidence in the rule of law and due process; in checks and balances and accountability.” But he insists on rejecting any possibility of an independent panel to investigate possible violations of the law in relation to any of the panoramically criminal actions of the Bush administration and its enablers.

Obama rightly takes credit for acting to shut Guantánamo down, and for ordering a review of all pending cases there. Yet he refuses to consider any congressional or nonpartisan inquiry into the abuse of prisoners held there — the same abuse that made Gitmo such an emotional flashpoint for anti-American sentiment in the first place.

Peter Baker picked up on the changes, in a May 21 analysis piece in The New York Times: “Mr. Obama is picking seemingly disparate elements from across the policy continuum — banning torture and other harsh interrogation techniques but embracing the endless detention of certain terror suspects without trial, closing the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, but retaining the military commissions held there.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Then there’s his plan to “construct a legitimate legal framework” to justify holding indefinitely those prisoners who fall through the cracks of current laws, those most dangerous terrorism suspects who can’t be tried or released. Obama’s proposal, gauzily described on Thursday as “prolonged detention,” has already inflamed human rights advocates.

“It is very troubling that he is intent on codifying in legislation the Bush policies of indefinite detention without charge,” Anthony D. Romero, American Civil Liberties Union executive director, told The New York Times after the speech. “That simply flies in the face of established American legal principle.”

President Obama equated “politicization” of the issue of torture under American auspices with pursuit of its penalties under the rule of law.

“I have no interest in spending our time re-litigating the policies of the last eight years,” the president said, tidily overlooking the fact that we never really litigated those policies to start with. The clock doesn’t run backwards, of course, but now that those policies and their accompanying damage are known, adherence to those “fundamental values” demands the same accountability Obama calls for.

This doesn’t respond to the reflexes of partisan politics; this isn’t a matter of left or right. This is about doing what needs doing to make sure those values mean something real, something bedrock in the national life.

◊ ◊ ◊

Speaking of the Bush administration, the president said Thursday that during the Bush years, “too often, our government made decisions based upon fear rather than foresight …”

“[I]f we continue to make decisions from within a climate of fear, we will make more mistakes. And if we refuse to deal with these issues today, then I guarantee you that they will be an albatross around our efforts to combat terrorism in the future.”

But there’s more than one kind of fear. There’s also the climate of fear — or certainly of reluctance — that exists when an administration is so preoccupied with pursuit of a largely corrective agenda that it loses sight of how some of that agenda means upholding the rule of law among its elected and appointed officials, and punishing those who don’t. If we refuse to deal with these issues, they’ll hobble our efforts to communicate what the rule of law is in America, what it means to its people and to people around the world.

“I will never hide the truth because it is uncomfortable,” the president said on Thursday. But will he pursue the truth if it’s uncomfortable? This is the unanswered question that’s gotten people so concerned; this is what aroused representatives of human rights groups when they met with Obama earlier in the week to discuss a sense of drifting toward benign acceptance of the Bush administration’s policies —the most recent of which was the Obama White House’s decision to oppose a request to petition the Supreme Court to reconsider dismissal of the lawsuit brought by former CIA operative Valerie Plame against top Bush administration officials for leaking her identity.

The truth behind the ultimate source of the torture memos and other grim Bush-era initiatives may be uncomfortable; it would take the Obama juggernaut off its planned agenda, slow its impressive strides. Saying it plain, an inquiry into the prevarications of the Bush administration would be one absolute pain in the ass. But it’s wrong to look at such an inquiry as a sideshow, a distraction from doing the people’s business. When a president and his administration pledge to follow the rule of law to its full and proper conclusion, that is the people’s business.

“I have opposed the creation of such a commission because I believe that our existing democratic institutions are strong enough to deliver accountability. The Congress can review abuses of our values, and there are ongoing inquiries by the Congress into matters like enhanced interrogation techniques. The Department of Justice and our courts can work through and punish any violations of our laws.”

If Obama truly means this, Attorney General Eric Holder is free to pursue the truth of the matter of the official use of torture, and to do so “in the interest of justice.” Ideally, an independent investigation is what’s called for — one directed by an outside, nonpartisan investigator and assisted by the Justice Department no doubt eager to prove its bona fides.

But no matter what the source, as a trier of fact, such a commission would join the significant ranks of the Watergate hearings and Church committee hearings in the ‘70s, the Iran-Contra hearings in the ‘80s, and the 9/11 commission in the wake of the nation’s worst terrorist incursion.

The president artfully dismissed the concerns of critics of his plan to have terrorist suspects placed in the high-security “supermax” prisons, and championed the abilities of U.S. prison personnel to keep such suspects locked down while awaiting trials in the United States.

He rightly expresses his confidence in those law enforcement officials. It’s baffling, then, how Obama can fail to follow through on another part of that confidence: a confidence in letting the judicial and legislative machinery of the government pursue the truth where it leads in a search for the roots of policies and practices that have deeply compromised America’s sense of itself.

◊ ◊ ◊

There’s more than one way to interpret the phrase “national security.” It’s usually thought of in terms of the interplay of intelligence, diplomatic outreach and military capability. As President Obama’s speech suggested in fleeting moments, it’s important to understand how those “fundamental values” are another component of national security, and in some ways, the strongest one.

Chief among those values is the rule of law — and the intent to enforce that law by any legal means necessary, and every legal means available.

The Obama administration is attempting a dance move, a tightrope walk or a straddle, attempting to find a middle ground between the old order it replaces and the new order it symbolizes. But it risks becoming an administration so enamored of the road ahead that it loses sight of the value of a rear-view mirror, and it does so at its peril.
Image credit: Obama top: Still from pool image. Valerie Plame: © 2008 Hunter Kahn, released to public domain. Eric Holder: Justice Dept. (public domain)

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

About-faces at the White House

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization, said on its Web site today that “the Obama administration is opposing our request that the Supreme Court reconsider the dismissal of the lawsuit, Wilson v. Libby, et al. In that case, the district court had dismissed the claims of Joe and Valerie Wilson against former Vice President Dick Cheney, Karl Rove, Scooter Libby and [former deputy secretary of state] Richard Armitage for their gross violations of the Wilsons’ constitutional rights.

“Agreeing with the Bush administration, the Obama Justice Department argues the Wilsons have no legitimate grounds to sue. It is surprising that the first time the Obama administration has been required to take a public position on this matter, the administration is so closely aligning itself with the Bush administration’s views,” CREW said.

It’s just the latest case of the Obama administration adopting positions both contrary to the pledges of Obama the campaigner and contradictive of the academic foundation of Obama the president. In rapid order the administration has reversed course on ending or curtailing the hated U.S. military tribunals of terrorism suspects; done an about-face on the pursuit of a robust investigation into torture as a strategy conceived and executed by the U.S. government; and changed its mind about releasing thousands of photographs of previously unpublished photos of U.S. prisoners in Iraq.

Civil libertarians wonder, maybe rightly so, what happened to the utterly principled former constitutional law professor they'd fallen in love with on the campaign trail.

It was all enough to send academics and representatives of human rights groups including the American Civil Liberties Union, Human Rights Watch, and the Center for Constitutional Rights to the White House, where, according to Michael Isikoff of Newsweek magazine, they proceeded to get in the 44th president’s business. Isikoff was interviewed this evening on MSNBC’s “Rachel Maddow Show.”

MADDOW: "Let's take a specific example, one of the specific issues, the subject of torture prosecutions, the possibility of maybe a truth commission, or a commission of inquiry of some kind on to the issue of torture. Your sources are telling you that the President remained firmly against pursuing any of those things at this meeting today. But is there any sense of what his arguments are to defend that sense, or is it still just this generic assertion that we need to look forward and not look back?"

ISIKOFF: "The President had a somewhat different explanation for his resistance for that. He talked about all the Congressional investigations going on, the litigation going on, and said it was too distracting to his staff, that too much time was being taken up. He actually looked directly at Attorney General Holder who was present at the meeting and indicated that Holder was having to spend too much time on this issue. Now some of those present have made the point that that's the reason to have a 9/11-style commission - instead of having many Congressional investigations, have one Presidentially-backed commission with subpoena power that can do all this. And the President didn't necessarily reject that, but he raised this issue of a distraction, too much time."

"Then after that one of those present raised the idea of a criminal prosecution, even one criminal prosecution as a symbol, sort of, a trophy, I think the word was used, to show that such conduct, for torture, would not be tolerated again. And the President sort of curtly dismissed the idea, made it clear he had no interest in that. What was interesting about that is his attorney general, again Eric Holder, sat there silently and didn't say a word. ...”

It’s no wonder, then, that many Americans are beginning to quietly reflect a voters’ remorse about their president. It’s no surprise that some mavericks in the blogosphere have actually started to call President Obama “Bush Light.”

The president on Thursday is expected to outline a strategy for shuttering the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay. In a speech that some already see it as pivotal to a full development of an Obama strategy on the war on terrorism, Obama hopes to undo the damage his credibility is beginning to take among the people who elected him.

With a grand signing gesture on his second day in the Oval Office, Obama promised to close Gitmo within a year, as part of a concerted bid to correct America's tarnished international image. On Thursday, Obama has to do what he can to restore the fading luster to his own domestic image, too.
Image credit: Gitmo, January 2009: Reuters/Brennan Linsley/Pool.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Dr. Steele's medicine show

Michael Steele, chairman of the Republican National Committee, came out and gave his party a good talking-to today, in an address from National Harbor, Md. Setting aside his erstwhile role as the GOP’s African American translator, Steele rallied the troops with an address — part Gipper speech, part Churchill in 1940 — that sought to reestablish the Republican Party as swimming in the American political mainstream. If only he could rally the American people as convincingly.

There was no “brothers” talk this time, no jabbering about “hip” and “bling.” In a speech short on specifics and long on sensibility, Steele waded into the Obama administration on several fronts. But the passion of Steele’s speech was overshadowed by those daunting things called facts — chief among them the fact that the litany of disasters Steele tried to lay at the president’s feet has its origins in the previous, Republican administration.

“It’s time for us to rise to the occasion,” Steele said. “It’s time to make our voices heard. It’s time to serve our country as the loyal opposition.”

“We’re going to show that we have the courage of our convictions,” he said. “The era of apologizing for Republican mistakes of the past is now officially over. It is done,” he said to enthusiastic applause.

◊ ◊ ◊

With that, the patient called the Republican Party pronounces itself well, healed and healthy without so much as a glance at the diagnosis that put it on the critical-condition list in the first place.

That diagnosis, reflected in a plurality of polling since both the election and the inauguration, would be instructive if the GOP leadership bothered to look.

That diagnosis was available on Monday, the day before Steele’s speech, in a minty-fresh Gallup Poll:

“The decline in Republican Party affiliation among Americans in recent years is well documented, but a Gallup analysis now shows that this movement away from the GOP has occurred among nearly every major demographic subgroup. Since the first year of George W. Bush's presidency in 2001, the Republican Party has maintained its support only among frequent churchgoers, with conservatives and senior citizens showing minimal decline. …”

“The losses are substantial among college graduates, which have shown a decline in GOP support of 10 points. (The losses are even greater — 13 points — among the subset of college graduates with postgraduate educations.) This may reflect in part Barack Obama’s strong appeal to educated voters, a major component of his winning coalitions in both the Democratic primaries and the general election,” Gallup reported.

Another part of the same diagnosis came not from outsiders, but from within the GOP camp. John Weaver, an adviser to Utah Governor John Huntsman (just named Obama’s new ambassador to China), told the Washington Examiner last week:

“If it's 2012 and our party is defined by [fancy pageant walker and Alaska Gov. Sarah] Palin and [talk-radio Doberman and former recreational pharmaceutical enthusiast Rush] Limbaugh and [lord of the underworld and former vice president Dick] Cheney, then we're headed for a blowout. That's just the truth.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Weaver’s comments underscore the degree of the weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth under way in the GOP tent. The idea that a manipulative apologist like Cheney, a political lightweight like Palin or an asshat like Limbaugh could be even remotely considered spokespersons for the Republicans is exactly their biggest problem. It’s these people culled from the GOP curio cabinet (don’t forget former House Speaker Newt Gingrich) that contradict Steele’s Monday message of a party looking forward.

In his broad ad hominen attack on all things Obama, Steele aped the party-line thinking today, painting Obama as someone who took the oath of office as president and then unilaterally decided to start spending money as fast as it could be printed. What Steele never mentioned were the eight years of antecedent irresponsibility — the profligate spending on the GOP’s watch — that made Obama’s corrective measures necessary in the first place.

Curiously, Steele made much today of putting a stop to “Republican navel gazing.” “The introspection is now over,” he said. But what the hell’s wrong with introspection? What’s wrong with thinking, considering and weighing your options?

Because that’s what the Republican Party did in 1976, after the drubbing at the hands of Jimmy Carter. In November 2000, Richard Goldstein of The Village Voice observed the ways in which the GOP rallied in the wake of the ’76 defeat:

“The right was reconfiguring itself along populist lines. These new conservatives weren’t led by an instinct to rebel. They weren’t drawn to revolution. They were willing to be patient, building a network of like-minded partisans, school board by town council. They spent their money wisely on think tanks and publications. And they grew these affinities into a well-disciplined force that could enlist the resentments of the moment. In 1980, they came to power with Ronald Reagan as their spokesmodel.”

With few exceptions (God knows the GOP doesn’t need another think tank), Goldstein’s prescription is a straight-up match for the challenges the Republicans face today. Ironic but probably true: the Republicans need to build a base, rather than spending time shoring up the one they’ve already got.

◊ ◊ ◊

Today, Michael Steele — like the wounded, damaged, willingly regionalized party he represents — talked about moving on, turning the page, making a fresh start (pick your own metaphor for rejuvenation).

But since November, many of the actions of the Republicans, and right-wing conservatives more generally, have been about doing everything possible not to make a fresh start, to preserve the status quo — of its base, its philosophy, its message, its identity.

The American people have moved on, apparently content with the choice made in November, and eager not to get fooled again.

The GOP hasn’t learned the lesson of November — for that matter, not even the lesson of Monday’s Gallup Poll: The American people identify the Republicans as yesterday’s news, and they don’t quite trust Steele’s call to turn the page.

They know it intuitively: It’s not a good idea to turn a page before you’ve read what’s on it.
Image credit: Gallup Poll snapshots: Gallup Poll.

Monday, May 18, 2009

The Cover Sheet of Revelation

If you wanted any more proof of the epic fail of the Bush administration — its self-etiolating foreign policy, its passion for deceit in the name of a shining imperialist mirage of an objective — it’s available courtesy of a story in the June issue of GQ magazine (on their Web site now), a story that cuts to the heart of the Bushies’ desperate rationale for the Iraq War of Convenience.

Thanks to journalist Robert Draper, we see just how far they were prepared to go.

Draper, author of “Dead Certain,” a well-regarded biography of George Bush and the origins of 43’s evangelical leanings, writes in GQ about the illustration and presentation of the Worldwide Intelligence Updates personally presented to then-President Bush by then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in the tense time just before the March 2003 invasion of Iraq and some months after.

Draper describes the Update as “a daily digest of critical military intelligence so classified that it circulated among only a handful” of Pentagon insiders. But oddly enough, it’s not the content of the briefings themselves that’s at issue. We’ve been living that reality for more than half a dozen years.

What’s jarring, and deeply upsetting to many, are the cover sheets adorning these recently declassified documents (some still bearing the black bar of redaction). Photographs of American forces in the Iraqi theater of operations are mixed with biblical quotations from the books of Ephesians, Psalms, Proverbs and Isaiah, and the epistles of Peter.

In juxtapositions of images and text that amounted to a daily Christian/military motivational tool, these cover sheets, accompanying briefs on the nation’s intelligence capability, are just short of a call to holy war — expressions of what the cover sheets suggest is the military mission of an American theocracy.

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Draper writes:
”These cover sheets were the brainchild of Major General Glen Shaffer, a director for intelligence serving both the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the secretary of defense. In the days before the Iraq war, Shaffer’s staff had created humorous covers in an attempt to alleviate the stress of preparing for battle. Then, as the body counting began, Shaffer, a Christian, deemed the biblical passages more suitable. Several others in the Pentagon disagreed. At least one Muslim analyst in the building had been greatly offended; others privately worried that if these covers were leaked during a war conducted in an Islamic nation, the fallout—as one Pentagon staffer would later say—‘would be as bad as Abu Ghraib.’”

Rumsfeld, who personally delivered the updates to Bush, was central to the communication of this cynical union of the religious and the governmental.

The Scripture-adorned cover sheets illustrate one specific complaint I heard again and again: that Rumsfeld’s tactics—such as playing a religious angle with the president—often ran counter to sound decision-making and could, occasionally, compromise the administration’s best interests. In the case of the sheets, publicly flaunting his own religious views was not at all the SecDef’s style —“Rumsfeld was old-fashioned that way,” Shaffer acknowledged when I contacted him about the briefings — but it was decidedly Bush’s style, and Rumsfeld likely saw the Scriptures as a way of making a personal connection with a president who frequently quoted the Bible. No matter that, if leaked, the images would reinforce impressions that the administration was embarking on a religious war and could escalate tensions with the Muslim world. The sheets were not Rumsfeld’s direct invention—and he could thus distance himself from them, should that prove necessary.

Still, the sheer cunning of pairing unsentimental intelligence with religious righteousness bore the signature of one man: Donald Rumsfeld.

Reacting, Rev. Barry W. Lynn, the executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said in a statement on Monday that American armed forces “are not Christian crusaders, and they ought not be depicted as such.”

“Depicting the Iraq conflict as some sort of holy war is completely outrageous. It's contrary to the constitutional separation of religion and government, and it's tremendously damaging to America's reputation in the world.”

Lynn’s of course correct. But coming so long after the fact of the military events these updates anticipated, they’re almost no surprise.

They’re a weak kind of revelation, confirming what we’ve known for some time, that Rumsfeld, the Bush administration and its various enablers were intent from the beginning — from before the beginning — on justifying an unnecessary war by any means necessary. Even a thoroughly calculated manipulation of American faith.
Image credits: Update cover sheets: GQ via Department of Defense.

Friday, May 15, 2009

A co-signer of The Times

Thomas Edsall of The Huffington Post today canvassed several “well-informed observers” of The New York Times (specialists in bankruptcy law).

Their prognosis was not good. Their jointly downbeat assessment flies in the face of some new proposals by The Times to thrive in a battered economy populated by risk-averse advertisers and wary consumers content to graze at several stops along the information highway.

Hope still springs eternal from the Times 52-story, $400 million headquarters in midtown Manhattan, even as a river of money seeps from the company inside.

Distilling the view of the observers, Edsall writes that, in their view,
[I]nsolvency may be roughly a year or two away.

If officials of the paper are forced to declare bankruptcy, it will be difficult — perhaps impossible — for the Sulzberger-Ochs family, which has been at the helm since 1896, to prevent the paper from falling into the hands of an individual or a corporation (for example, Rupert Murdoch and the News Corporation) whose journalistic principles are markedly different from, if not antithetical to, those that have guided the United States' dominant newspaper.

The family’s one out may be not in whether it sells but in who it sells to. With ownership of a majority of a special class of stock (without which no purchase of The Times is possible), the Sulzberger family can head off the ignominy of bankruptcy by selling those shares to whoever they choose. For this reason, and because of the economic headwinds the company faces, the enduring journalistic legacy of the Sulzbergers may well depend on the vision of the prospective buyer, and the family’s ability to get that vision.

◊ ◊ ◊

Of all the names floated as a possible new owner of The Times might be, the name of David Geffen — the billionaire investor whose early bets on Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, the Eagles and DreamWorks cemented his status as a media visionary — is for now easily the most intriguing.

Businessweek reported earlier this month that Geffen intended to invest $200 million for a stake in the Times Company of just under 20 percent, buying out the stake owned by the hedge fund Harbinger Capital Partners.

It may be more than just a savvy piecemeal investment. According to Newsweek’s Johnnie L. Roberts, “two people familiar with Geffen’s thinking” said the mogul “would regard the newspaper … as a national treasure meriting preservation into perpetuity.”

As Newsweek lays it out, the Geffen plan, if one truly emerged, would entail running The Times as a nonprofit organization, something roughly analogous to the St. Petersburg Times, controlled by the independent Poynter Institute for Media Studies, a nonprofit educational institution — a relationship singular among American newsgathering organizations.

There’s another way. The Times could also explore the benefits of reforming as an L3C, a lower-profit variation on the limited liability company (LLC) that would combine the pursuit of work of a proven social benefit with a secondary profit motive, attracting both private investment and philanthropic capital.

Either way, it would be a shift not so much cataclysmic as epochal: the nation’s consistently pre-eminent newsgathering entity free to subordinate (if only slightly) pursuit of the relentless profit motive and to further its journalistic role as the template of a free press, an entity more fully in the public interest: “”

◊ ◊ ◊

But something’s got to be done, and quickly, and smartly. This is a company bleeding cash, at the mother of all burn rates. Edsall reported that the New York Times Company lost a breathtaking $74.5 million in the first quarter of this year — compared to a loss of $335,000 the same time last year.

The reliable New York Observer reported Friday that Times executive editor Bill Keller met with staff on Wednesday to discuss not one but two! paid-content models apparently being considered by the Times:
”One includes a ‘meter system,’ in which the reader can roam freely on the Web site until hitting a predetermined limit of word-count or pageviews, after which a meter will start running and the reader is charged for movement on the site thereafter. He warned staff at the meeting that this pay model would be ‘tricky.’ If the word-count limit or page-view limit is set too low, it could chase readers off, compromising traffic and advertising revenue.”

We can credit (or blame) much of this idea on the fact that people who work at The Times take taxicabs all over New York City. Because that’s what this is: a use-weighted (as opposed to distance-weighted) approach to charging for content.

As such, it’s more than “tricky”; it’s truly problematic, on several levels. The New York Times has never been a snapshot of a newspaper; the very level of detail and complexity The Times can bring to bear on any topic under the sun has been its historical hallmark, and the very best asset it has to trade on in the future.

If the “meter system” hinges on word count, then, it’s highly subjective when the meter should kick in. What’s the criteria? How much of a Frank Rich piece do I get before the meter starts running? Is it the same word count I get for a David Brooks op-ed before the word-count flag drops? When will the meter kick in for breaking news stories?

A page-view threshold has its problems too; the vast numbers of computer screens in the world, Kindle and laptop, iPhone and desktop alike, are of different sizes and operate at different levels of resolution. It’s hard to enforce a page-view standard when there’s really no such thing as a standard page view.

◊ ◊ ◊

But frankly, all of these seemingly fresh ideas point to a problem as fundamental to the Times as its identity as a news operation: the people directing the Times as a news operation. For any of these ideas to see the light of day would mean that, in less than 10 years, the New York Times will have gone from supporting a free-content online business model to endorsing a paid-content model to renouncing that paid-content model to championing the free-content model to backing another paid-content model likely to be one of the most intrusive and complicated of anything online.

This after having announced a raising of the price of the Times newspaper for the third time in 23 months.

Who’s in charge? How did the most respected single voice in American journalism come to lurch from one strategy to another, frantically tacking left and right in search of some faint breeze? How’d they lose sight of the overall? Who's got the throughline?

Given the challenges facing them, you have to wonder what pact with the devil may be necessary to keep The Times viable and independent. Who’ll co-sign to let the Sulzbergers stay in charge? And if the center can’t hold, can the Times brain trust make a next move that upholds the journalistic principles of the institution as well as the fiduciary principles of a business?

Last month, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., said this at the Times annual meeting:

“We know that there are considerable challenges before us, but past experience teaches us that the outcome will be determined by our ability to adhere to the formula that has successfully driven this Company for so long.”

And there lies the ominous problem: The formula that has successfully driven the New York Times for so long may be close to driving it into the ground.
Image credits: New York Times front page: ©2009 The New York Times Company. Geffen: Paul Hawthorne/Associated Press. New York taxi: Nrbelex, republished under GNU Free Documentation License v1.2. Sulzberger: jdlasica at

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Speak, Comedy: The Wanda & Barack Show

Brash and acerbic, Wanda Sykes is a comedian who is — like scotch, jazz, hunting and certain anatomical positions attempted between consenting adults — an acquired taste. Her Emmy-winning brand of comedy, developed for years on the standup circuit and sharpened with her role on CBS’s “New Adventures of Old Christine” or appearances on HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” isn’t for everyone. Either you get it or you don’t; either way, you best keep your head down.

This was known when Sykes was invited to speak Saturday at the White House Correspondents Dinner — the annual nerd scribes’ prom that for Washington journalists is attitudinally the closest thing to the Golden Globe Awards, with none of the awards and only some of the Globes attitude.

For relatively strait-laced journalists in a risqué-averse city like Washington, the WHCD is a chance to let off steam. And let others do the same thing. Like Wanda Sykes.

◊ ◊ ◊

The fallout is still continuing over Sykes who, her natural self-confidence squared with the self-confidence of brand-new parenthood, took on that progressives’ target of opportunity, the talk-radio dirigible Rush Limbaugh. No amount of Tell will ever trump the Show. You have to see the videos to believe:

At least one writer gives Sykes credit, in her reliably over-the-top way, for making the resuscitation of the GOP at least possible, by asserting the wish her heart makes: the GOP as a Rush-free zone. John Batchelor at The Daily Beast observed as much on Tuesday:
“Wanda Sykes articulated a simple vision. She pictured a day in the distant future when the Republican Party will be free of its childlike dependence upon burlesque acts like Rush Limbaugh and his acolytes; free of their droning, repetitive excuses that the attack on New York and Washington gives them writ to bait and bully everyone who isn’t on the burlesque stage with them.” …

Jon Stewart commented with professional admiration, “That’s a hard joke.” But it was much more. It was a revelation to the GOP of what it means to be lost, without power, without leadership, out of ideas, time, patience, courage, and yet to be needy to the point of strung out on the daily palaver of a disembodied, troubled, ill-educated, powerless performer in his Orson Welles costume babbling alone in a radio studio in Florida.

What Wanda Sykes has done for the GOP is to name the problem, and the problem is the party’s addiction to hambone performers who each day claim to be speaking for the so-called conservative base of the Republican Party.”

The headliner, President Obama, who actually preceded Sykes on the fight card, flat-out killed. Again, peep the videos to see just how accurate and pitch-perfect Barack Obama’s comic timing really is, even when the focus is … Barack Obama. It’s clear that the 44th president has the ability to bring his formidable skills as an orator to the world of comedy.

You want self-confidence?

“Good evening. I am Barack Obama. Most of you covered me. All of you voted for me. Apologies to the Fox table.”

He took on all comers, from the Republican party to RNC chairman Michael Steele to once-but-not-yet future rival Hillary Clinton to … himself.

"I would like to talk about what my administration plans to achieve in the next 100 days,” he said. "During the second 100 days, we will design, build and open a library dedicated to my first 100 days." …

"I believe that my next 100 days will be so successful, I will be able to complete them in 72 days -- and on the 73rd day I will rest."

To the president, former vice president and reigning dark lord Dick Cheney was a chip shot from the duckblind: "He is very busy working on his memoirs, tentatively titled "How to Shoot Friends and Interrogate People." …

“I must confess I really didn't want to be here tonight. But I had to come. That's one more problem I inherited from George Bush.”

A good time was had by all, more or less. Obama can take pride in his own versatility. If for some reason this President of the United States thing doesn’t work out, he’s got a standup career waiting.

And Sykes, a beneficiary of a blessed event, may have met her match for outspokenness. TV Guide announced on Thursday that the comedian and her companion, identified only as Alex, welcomed twins, boy (Lucas Claude) and girl (Olivia Lou), into the world on April 27.

No doubt those two kids, the couple’s first, will share Wanda’s flair for trying out new material, shouting whatever comes to mind whenever the mood strikes.
Image credit: Wanda Sykes: Still from C-SPAN.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

T.I.’s pre-lockdown props

We’re used to the rapper esthetic being played out to the hilt in public, a parade of people bearing stereotypes from the arc-welder eyeshades to the cap cocked at quarter to nine to the Attitude, the indispensable ‘tude that helped the media establish Cristal, Glock and Escalade as some kind of holy trinity of the rapper ethos. With the rappers’ ready approval. And the world’s eager consumption.

The rapper T.I. was no exception. On March 27 the three-time Grammy-winning rapper, who starred in “ATL” and “American Gangster” was sentenced to serve a year and a day in prison for possession of illegal firearms. In 2007 T.I. (aka Clifford Joseph Harris Jr.) was arrested hours before the B.E.T. Hip-Hop Awards, and charged with holding three unregistered machine guns and two silencers, and possession of firearms by a convicted felon.

The year 2007, a wild one for T.I., was a capstone on other years that were even more, uh, eventful. In 1998 he was charged with violating a state controlled substances act and giving false information. In 2003 he was sentenced to community service for assault of a female sheriff deputy at a Tampa mall. In 2006 he was arrested on a probation violation warrant from Florida.

So far, you’re thinking, it’s the traditional arc of a tragedy about to happen. We’ve seen this doomed trajectory before. But credit T.I. with a change of heart that seems sincere. As part of the 1,500 hours of community service that’s part of his March conviction, T.I. has spoken several times before tens of thousands of high school students, warning them off the culturally seductive path of gun culture.

Then on May 11, in a blog on The Huffington Post titled “Responsibility Is a Lifestyle,” T.I. wrote of his personal awakening, speaking truth to power with the eloquence of the street and an eloquence beyond it:
“In a few weeks, I will begin a one-year prison sentence for being in the possession of illegal firearms. Where I come from, having a gun is just part of everyday life. But, through this painful process of going to court and being convicted, I realized that I had to make a change. I made some bad decisions. I broke the law and will accept my punishment. With deep reflection about where my life was headed, I have begun the process of redemption, and decided that before I go to prison, I want to speak to young people about responsibility as a lifestyle. I hope that through my mistakes, young people can begin to learn, as I did, that we have to put our guns down and start to give our guns back. …”

This is a forthright cry from the heart; there are politicians who'd do well to adopt T.I.'s forthright admission of wrong and his pledge to improve. But he also understands the broader dimension of responsibility about gun violence. He recognizes it's as much about the collective, societal We as it is about the individual's role.

“Now is the time to speak out against gun violence. Now is the time to take responsibility for our actions. Now is the time to make our communities safer. … Now is the time to give back our guns. Now is the time for me to lead by example.

May 11 was also the day that T.I. marched through Harlem with (among others) rights activist Rev. Al Sharpton, Russell Simmons of Def Jam, and Kevin Liles of Warner Music Group to denounce gun violence, and to remember the lives of two teenagers shot to death recently in the area.

“I carried guns and swung dope as a 13-year-old,” T.I. told the New York Daily News. “I had my best friend taken away from me through guns. I was so hurt from the loss of his life, I didn't take notice to the knowledge that I still had mine.”

The cynics among you will say he’s fishing for a plea bargain, and maybe he is. But sometimes it’s sensible, to say nothing of refreshing, to acknowledge a statement for exactly what it states. T.I. wouldn’t be the first person in America to make some new personal pivot in the wake of the election of President Obama. In an era of change, let’s give T.I. the benefit of the doubt.

If he’s serious, and there’s no reason to think he’s not, this could signal another sea change in the tropes and traditions of Hiphop Nation, as profound in its way as the shift of rap fashion that Jay-Z, Kanye West and P. Diddy spearheaded not so long ago. But needless to say, this is bigger than fashion. This is a straight-up renunciation of the ballistic code of honor that’s been central to young black music, and young black life, for far too damn long.

The skills of manhood are bigger than skills of the mic. All props to T.I. for recognizing that.
Image credits: T.I. top: Promotional still. T.I. lower: Still from video.

Monday, May 11, 2009

The ‘57-state solution’

After last year’s presidential election, some voices in the media said that President Obama would excel as an American president by exploiting the momentum of history laid out before him. The way to Obama's possible greatness in the office would lie in his willingness to seize opportunities, to make bold moves, to step outside of the footprints laid before him, to step out on faith and possibly change everything — starting with people’s expectations of what is possible.

Next week, President Obama faces one of those opportunities.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in his first visit to Washington since regaining the leadership of Israel, will meet with President Obama, at the White House sometime in the next week. To say there are high hopes would be a colossal understatement.

“All eyes will be looking to Washington,” King Abdullah of Jordan told The Times Online (UK), in an interview dated Monday. “If there are no clear signals and no clear directives to all of us, there will be a feeling that this is just another American government that is going to let us all down.”

The King's forecast, which might seem to make him the purveyor of possible doom, the Cassandra of the Hashemite Kingdom, may be the kind of gimlet-eyed pragmatism the Israeli-Palestinian issue has called for.
”If there is procrastination by Israel on the two-state solution or there is no clear American vision for how this is going to play out in 2009, then all the tremendous credibility that Obama has worldwide and in this region will evaporate overnight if nothing comes out in May.

If we delay our peace negotiations, then there’s going to be another conflict between Arabs or Muslims and Israel in the next 12 to 18 months — as sure as the other conflicts happened.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Such statements suggest that the leaders of 57 Muslim majority nations, borrowing from Obama’s playbook of lightning change, may be prepared to attempt to engage on a broad range of solutions, including discussing the two-state solution that has been the third rail, tripwire, minefield and stumbling block of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for decades.

For Obama, barely started on his first term in office, the stakes could not be higher. To emerge from meetings with Netanyahu and Muslim leaders with a framework for finally, comprehensively settling generations of bad blood and old scores would establish Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as a diplomatic tandem equal to the greatest in our nation’s history.

And more: Obama’s achievement of a comprehensive Middle East peace— the kind of broad stroke our young president has already shown a facility for — would seriously undercut the recruiting tools of terrorists, begin cutting off the air supply of resentment, outrage and ethnic emotionalism that terrorism needs to survive.

◊ ◊ ◊

But it’s all gone south before. The shimmering dream of a comprehensive Middle East peace has frustrated administrations past, most notably that of President Clinton, who went at it hammer & tongs with then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. The offer of a separate Palestinian state awaited Arafat; this was the door he could not, would not step through when the opportunity presented itself in December 2000 and January 2001.

This door of opportunity is one Barack Obama’s clearly ready to walk through. He intends to give a major speech on Muslim-American relations in Egypt in June, the beneficiary of a wave of goodwill from everyday people in leading Arab countries. Reuters reported Sunday on a new Ipsos Poll that found “Obama's popularity in leading Arab countries far outstrips that of the United States, suggesting he could be able to boost goodwill in the region toward his country.”

Obama “currently enjoys widespread optimism among citizens of that region that he will have a positive effect on their own country, the Middle East, the United States and indeed the world,” Ipsos reported in its canvass of 7,000 adults in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Lebanon, Egypt and Jordan.

◊ ◊ ◊

For King Abdullah, though, the stakes are even higher than the conventional wisdom might suggest. A two-state solution — Israelis in one sovereign nation, Palestinians in another — has long been the Holy Grail of diplomacy.

The king would beg to differ. For him, it’s bigger. And deeper. And wider. And basic to the leadership skills of Obama and Netanyahu, two of the newest world leaders facing a challenge that could eventually reshape nothing less than the map of the Middle East. A carpe diem moment that starts sometime in the next week.

“The critical juncture will be what comes out of the Obama-Netanyahu meeting,” he told The Times.
”We are sick and tired of the process. We are talking about direct negotiations. That is a major point. We are approaching this in a regional context. You could say through the Arab peace proposal. The Americans see this as we do and I think the Europeans. Britain is playing a very vital pro-active role, more than I have ever seen in the ten years of my experience in bringing people together.

What we are talking about is not Israelis and Palestinians sitting at the table, but Israelis sitting with Palestinians, Israelis sitting with Syrians, Israelis sitting with Lebanese. And with the Arabs and the Muslim world lined up to open direct negotiations with Israelis at the same time. So it’s the work that needs to be done over the next couple of months that has a regional answer to this — that is not a two-state solution, it is a 57-state solution.

That is the tipping point that shakes up Israeli politicians and the Israeli public. Do you want to stay Fortress Israel for the next ten years? The calamity that that would bring to all of us, including the West? This has become a global problem.”

Image credits: Obama: Still from White House video. Netanyahu: © 2009 World Economic Forum. Obama and King Abdullah: Pete Souza/The White House. Clinton, Barak and Arafat: The White House via UPI.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Specter value to Democrats: Not Proven

The wrapper’s still on the welcome-neighbor fruit basket the Democrats sent to Arlen Specter’s place. He moved in all of ten days ago, and he’s stunk up the whole block already.

The prodigal 29-year senator from Pennsylvania, lost as a Republican and newly found as a Democrat, was a source of some distress for the GOP last week, as the Republicans reckoned with the loss of a seat in the Senate, and with it the probable loss of the filibuster as a weapon against the Obama legislative agenda.

That was last week. A lot goes down in seven days. In that time, the newest Democratic senator has his neighbors wondering why he moons the cars as they pass by on the street — wondering exactly what side of the aisle Arlen Specter is really on.

◊ ◊ ◊

For years now Arlen Specter has made a habit, if not the better part of a career, by pledging allegiance to no one but himself. Going his own way has been a hallmark of his style on Capitol Hill.

The senator, who infamously voted “not proven” in 1998, during the Clinton Senate impeachment vote — a weird sideways invocation of Scottish law that essentially just means voting “not guilty” — broke with the Republicans in 1987, over the nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court. He pissed off his own party again in 1999, when he condemned the GOP for the relentlessly zealous pursuit of the impeachment of President Clinton, in the fallout of the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

Maybe for this reason, according to recent polls by Quinnipiac University, Specter has a higher approval rating among Democrats in Pennsylvania than Republicans, 62–55 respectively.

Not that he’s above angering the Democrats — the party that, until just about ten days ago, was his loyal opposition.

On April 28, President Obama was told of Specter’s pending switch to the Democrats. Specter told Obama, “I’m a loyal Democrat. I support your agenda.” Hey, everybody, welcome the prodigal!

◊ ◊ ◊

Well, that didn’t last long. About a week. Specter had by this time already been re-necklaced by David Broder of The Washington Post, with the title “Specter the Defector” That's what they called Specter when he flipped from Democrat to Republican back in 1965.

Then, on May 2, on NBC's "Meet the Press" last Sunday, Specter raised the, uh, spectre of a loose cannon in the Senate having rolled from one aisle to the other.

In an exchange with Specter, MTP moderator David Gregory said:
GREGORY: It was reported this week that when you met with the president, you said, “I will be a loyal democrat. I support your agenda.” Let me test that on probably one of the most important areas of his agenda, and that’s health care. Would you support health care reform that puts up a government run public plan to compete with a private plan issued by a private insurance company?
SPECTER: No. And you misquote me, David. I did not say I would be a loyal Democrat. I did not say that. And last week, after I said I was changing parties, I voted against the budget because the budget has a way to pass health care with 51 votes, which undermines a basic Senate institution to require 60 votes to impose closure on key issues. …I did not say I am a loyal Democrat.

Real loyal Democrats everywhere dropped their remotes (along with their jaws) and asked themselves, “Can this marriage be annulled?” Which assumes there was a marriage in the first place. There were some Democrats who were already skeptical of Specter’s truer motives for making this switch.

He talked a good game about making the leap across the aisle on the basis of principle and values, and Specter’s historically iconoclastic voting pattern, not always in lockstep with his own party, has happened often enough over 29 years to make that believable.

But then you drill down a little further and you hit the bedrock of the reason for Specter’s morphing from red to blue: Specter faced a primary challenge from Republican Pat Twoomey, a former Congressman and figurehead behind the Club for Growth. It was generally conceded that Specter would have lost. Rather than risk the end of his senatorial career in a loss to a primary challenger in his own party, Specter made the switcheroo of the label on the can; whether there’s a transformation of the product inside is in doubt.

"I did not say I would be a loyal Democrat," Specter said, apparently losing sight of the fact that you can be a loyal Democrat without being servile or reflexively obedient.

When The New York Times asked whether he lamented the absence of Jewish Republicans in the Senate, he said, "I sure do. There's still time for the Minnesota courts to do justice and declare Norm Coleman the winner."

It’s apparently hard for the new guy to lose his old habits.

◊ ◊ ◊

It may be just as hard for Pennsylvania Democrats to lose one of their old habits — like loyalty to the party and its principles. The state, which went for Obama last year, has its own iconoclastic streak. The working-class voters of the state, faced with the prospect of Twoomey (a Republican they don’t know) and the reality of Specter (a Democrat they don’t trust), could just go a different way altogether.

Enter Joe Sestak. He’s a former Navy rear admiral. He’s got a Ph.D from Harvard. He’s worked with the Joint Chiefs and the National Security Council. He’s currently a Democratic congressman in Pennsylvania’s 7th district, and the highest ranking former military officer to ever serve in Congress. And he’s considering whether or not to run against Specter in the primary next year.

Sestak is impressive on camera. He knows the talking points, has a firm command of the need for rapid-fire encapsulation of a point of view, and he doesn’t back down. He looked good on May 1 on MSNBC’s “Hardball,” muzzling the notoriously hyperactive pit bull Chris Matthews — actually finishing his answers before Matthews piled on with more.

He looked just as good, sharp and articulate the day before, on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program:

Sestak looks believable; his arguments are reasoned and couched in a rhetorical style that’s accessible, at odds with Specter’s curmudgeonly flintiness. Sestak would give Specter all he could handle in the Democratic Senate primary campaign. Sestak is younger than Specter, his resume is frankly more impressive, he’s more energetic, way easier on the eyes, and he’s more of a piece with Pennsylvanians’ sense of themselves as independents living in the future tense, rather than the past.

Some in the Democratic party are already putting Specter, and his possible value to the party, in a less-than-awestruck perspective.

Democratic strategist James Carville said Specter’s shift was possibly a "major event in terms of how the Senate conducts its business," but "a relatively minor event in political history."

"[Specter] was the least reliable Republican. So he will just switch to become the least reliable Democrat," he said in a May 4 interview with The Huffington Post. "I wouldn't try to make much more out of it than the political survivor comes up with one more act in a long-running play of political survival …”

Some in the press have caught on, too. Broder of The Post has. "[M]uch as Specter's decision reflects an increasingly serious weakness in the Republican Party, there is no escaping the fact that it is also an opportunistic move by one of the most opportunistic politicians of modern times.

"The one consistency in the history of Arlen Specter has been his willingness to do whatever will best protect and advance the career of Arlen Specter."
Image credits: Specter: Public domain. Sestak: Public domain.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

A $ign of the (New York) Times

Even as an action taken to ensure nothing less than survival, it couldn’t come at a worse time: effective June 1, readers of The New York Times will have to dig deeper in their wallets for their daily dead-tree fix of information.

The price of individual copies of The New York Times on Mondays through Saturdays will climb to $2 — the third time in 23 months. the Times' weekday price goes up at city and national newsstands by 50 cents, or 33 percent, from today’s price of $1.50.

The New York Times also is raising the price for its Sunday national and Northeast editions: $6 a pop, an increase of $1. In the New York metropolitan area, it will cost $5, a $1 increase.

While it’s of course completely defensible from a bottom-line perspective, given the industry's continuing decline in advertising revenue, there’s no escaping the fact that this increase — following others between July 2007 and now, in something of a rite of spring for The Times — comes during the grimmest economic period for the American consumer in generations.

The blogosphere (undoubtedly many of the very same cohort The Times needs to survive) has weighed in, with some remarks that should be at least briefly concerning to the company's brain trust.

CommonSenseMom at HuffPost commented today:

Three words:
Cancel My Subscription

Three more words:
I Have Internet

MED1025, HuffPost, wrote: Six bucks? I'll read it on line.

MED1025 may be onto something. With much of the best of the Sunday Forklift Edition available free at, and with the Times unwilling (for now) to re-enlist in a paid-content strategy, budget-conscious readers may make the digital switch and never come back.

◊ ◊ ◊

Scott Heekin-Canedy, president and general manager of The New York Times, answered questions about the fate of The Times on April 29, before the announcement of the price increase. “We must preserve and protect our print franchises while growing our digital businesses. We must invest to grow our businesses while aggressively controlling costs. We must control costs while protecting the quality of our journalism. …

“Our news, information and opinion content have never commanded a larger, more engaged audience than today. Our print audience is stable and is being replenished with younger readers. About 70 percent of our 1.1 million subscribers use Seventy percent have also subscribed for at least two years.”

That kind of duplication of print subscribers and online readers is encouraging; it points to the kind of loyalty that newspapers would kill for (or die for, as the Rocky Mountain News, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the Ann Arbor News already have this year). But the current state of the economy — and the fact that individual consumers’ recovery is a lagging indicator of that economy as it improves — may well make some of those 770,000 Times readers rethink the belt-and-suspenders habit of their daily Times consumption.

The Times may be on to something; maybe this is one of those brilliant counter-intuitive moves borne less of inspiration than desperation. The implicit message to print readers may be "you get what you pay for, and you pay for quality."

Generations of loyal Times readers have made their peace with that. But when a price increase at the newsstand is as predictable as the heat of city summer, The Times is trying the patience and the finances of cash-strapped New Yorkers (enduring tens of thousands of municipal jobs lost just this year) and cash-strapped Americans everywhere else.
Image credit: New York Times front page: © 2009 The New York Times Company.
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