Robert Stein 1924-2014

Contact Information

If anyone has comments, questions or condolences, please feel free to send a private message to the family at robertstein@optonline.net.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Happy New Year, Don Rumsfeld

Dear Mr. Secretary: If anyone deserves a better year than 2006, it’s you.

As someone who once lost a top job, I feel your pain. The calendar goes blank, message slips disappear, and people avert their eyes as though you had “loser” stamped on your forehead.

Sure, they gave you a brass-band sendoff, but a sensitive person could see you felt as if the epaulettes were being stripped from your shoulders.

The good news is this: You are now free to do what you do best—set people straight.

Don’t take less than a million-dollar advance for your memoirs and then let those who let you down have both barrels. Start with your “good friend,” Dick Cheney, who should appreciate a shotgun metaphor.

Instead of looking in the mirror in 2000 and picking himself for VP, why not you? You could have spent these past years whispering into young Bush’s ear and being charming on ceremonial occasions.

Instead, they have you fronting for clueless politicians and gutless generals as a punching bag for the malicious media.

After all, your invasion plan sliced Iraq like a hot knife through butter. Why would anyone expect a master strategist to turn traffic cop?

Don’t stop believing in yourself. Even young Bush gets something right once in a while. In fifty years, the world may appreciate his brilliance and courage—and yours.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Brain Calisthenics for the New Congress

The New York Times reports “brain calisthenics” keep the elderly from losing their minds, but can anything be done for younger people in the U.S. Senate?

Of Senators who voted against going to war in Iraq, nine ranged in age from 66 to 85. But there was more to it than the cliché about older, wiser heads.

Not one of the 23 dissenters had Presidential ambitions, while many Democrats who gave George W. Bush a blank check for the disaster were clearly influenced by fear that their refusal might be used against them in the future.

As the first “Profiles in Courage” test of the century, those “no” votes of October 11, 2002 on Joint Resolution 114 ironically resulted not in political suicide for those who cast them but as a headache for those who did not.

Now here is a brain exercise for Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, John Edwards, Joe Biden, Chris Dodd et al: To undo the damage, try hard to imagine what is right rather than what looks safe.

Don't fund the "surge" until you are sure it isn't a ploy to save Bush's face at the cost of more American lives.

Being tough-minded may not always get you what you want, but as you grow older, it will certainly keep your mind and spirit from deteriorating.

Lethal Politeness

From beyond the grave, Gerald Ford now tells us he thought the war in Iraq was "a big mistake." Why didn't he speak out three thousand American lives ago?

Colin Powell, who spent a lifetime serving his country, waits years to let us know his misgivings about the war. Why didn't he resign as Secretary of State and speak out before the deaths of all those soldiers he once commanded?

Even Bush 41 breaks down talking publicly about his fatherly feelings, and we all sense who and what his tears are about. But aren't those Iraq casualties, in the words of Arthur Miller's World War II play, "All My Sons"?

In an era when cable comics tells us more than we want to know about their sex lives and bowel habits, why is there still so much reticence to talk openly about the life and death of multitudes?

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

The Importance of Not Being Nixon

When Richard Nixon resigned, the American people would have been happy to see the Oval Office vacant for a while.

A pleasant, well-meaning man, Gerald R. Ford came close to giving them what they wanted. Aside from his misstep in abruptly pardoning his predecessor, Ford's most memorable act in two years was asking citizens to fight rampant inflation by wearing buttons saying WIN ("Whip Inflation Now").

After Ford, voters chose an obscure Southern governor who wore a sweater for TV fireside chats while puzzling over a "national malaise."

It is no disrespect to Ford's memory to point out that a terrifying President like Nixon lowers the bar for his successors, just as whoever takes the oath in January 2009 will benefit greatly from not being George W. Bush.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

President Gore, Lame Duck

As Al Gore faces his final years in the White House, history will view his two terms as disappointing.

After a razor-thin victory over George Bush in 2000, the new President was ultra-cautious.

Republicans labeled him “Al Bore” for failing to pursue a muscular foreign policy and for endless consultations with UN members, NATO allies, even potential adversaries such as North Korea and Iran.

Then he overreacted to such criticism, using an intelligence report in August, 2001, as pretext for striking defenseless camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan, arousing protests throughout the Middle East over the death of a populist leader, Osama bin Laden, and his followers.

Even more controversial was Gore’s expulsion of fifteen visitors from our ally, Saudi Arabia, for what Rush Limbaugh sarcastically termed “the heinous crime of taking flying lessons.”

The furor drove oil prices to $30 a barrel, with public protest bringing the President’s approval ratings down to 50 percent.

After that, Gore reverted to consensus by pushing for UN inspections in Iraq for weapons of mass destruction, which were never found. This diplomatic waffling, critics claim, diminished the U.S.’s standing in the world.

On the domestic front, the President refused to stimulate the economy with tax cuts, despite an ongoing budget surplus, and pushed for crippling limits on industrial emissions to reduce the so-called greenhouse effect.

Despite such gaffes, Gore narrowly won reelection in 2004 by reverting to Bill Clinton’s ploy of “It’s the economy, stupid.” His opponent, Malcolm Forbes, never managed to stir voters with his proposal of a flat income tax.

As 2008 approaches, the blandness of the Gore years may end. Vice-President Joe Lieberman, with a lock on the Democratic nomination, favors an aggressive American stance in the world. He will likely face George W. Bush, who claims Gore's election sent the country into a downward spiral.

A major issue will be terrorism which, relatively quiescent in eight years of diplomatic bumbling, may come to the fore again when a new President has America acting like a superpower again.

The question in 2008 will be: How do we let the rest of the world know we can no longer be pushed around?


Friday, December 22, 2006

A Raft of Celebrities

Picture Martha Stewart, Rosie O’Donnell and Donald Trump in the middle of an ocean.

I once invented a game for my media friends: Name three people you would put on a raft to be safe and sound but never to be heard from again.

The problem with the game turned out to be that three was never enough, but it did focus our minds on who were the most annoying celebrities of all.

Your choices can tell a lot about your values: Bill O’Reilly over O.J. Simpson? Paris Hilton or Dr. Phil?

Mel Gibson, Britney Spears, Barbra Streisand (one of my all-time greats), Howard Stern, Rush Limbaugh, Tom Cruise, Dick Cheney, Anna Nicole Smith, Henry Kissinger, Jessica Simpson, Robert Novak?

If you can’t think of names, watch Larry King on CNN. He has a candidate on his show just about every other night.

Donald Rumsfeld was on my short list for the year, but George Bush put him on his raft last month.

A Cure for Hiccups

President Kennedy’s White House doctor, Janet Travell, who put him in a rocking chair and kept him from being bed-ridden, spent a long career researching muscle spasms.

Twenty five years ago, I was helping Dr. Travell find a publisher for a two-volume medical text on trigger-point therapy when she mentioned a paper she had written on one form of that treatment-—for hiccups.

In this season of eating too fast and drinking too much, both of which may bring on hiccups, herewith Dr. Travell’s little-known but, in my experience, absolutely effective cure:

There is a small flap at the back of the upper palate called the uvula. Pressing the end of a butter knife or spoon handle firmly against it for three seconds or more will make the spasms stop. The only problem is to keep the hiccupper calm enough to avoid gagging.

In dozens of attempts with friends and family, I found it worked every time. As a magazine editor, I ran a brief item, and scores of readers confirmed that it did.

This hiccup treatment may also stop snoring, if you have the nerve to wake someone and try.

HAPPY HOLIDAYS!

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Cuddly New Newt

One thing about Newt Gingrich: He’s never dull.

After shutting down the government in 1995, impeaching Bill Clinton for office sex while carrying on an affair in his own and a $300,000 fine by the House ethics committee, any other politician might slink into silence.

But here is a new cuddly, conciliatory Newt Gingrich, ubiquitous in New Hampshire, on “Meet the Press” and Fox TV, with a new crackpot Contract With America for the 21st century, advocating bipartisan solutions for social problems, most of them featuring patriotism, God and giving tax-free money to Gingrich.

He is not running for President, mind you, but is holding himself available if America needs him to lead us out of the darkness.

Don’t hold your breath, Newt

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Surging into a Quagmire

At his press conference Bush is asked “if this has been a time of painful realization for you...that some of the policies you hoped would succeed have not.”

He avoids talking about his mistakes by saying, “The most painful aspect of my Presidency has been knowing that good men and women have died in combat.”

Asked about his judgment, Bush tells us about his compassion, making it hard for us to believe in either.

Now this man, who is temperamentally unable to admit being wrong, is considering a “surge” of more troops into Baghdad. If many of them die needlessly, he will undoubtedly tells us, as he did today, that “my heart breaks” for their families.

After he listens to all the expert advice about a surge to quell the violence, he would do well to consider the wisdom of the country boys in my platoon in World War II:

“Don’t keep getting into pissing contests with skunks.”

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Time for Reflection

Thirty five years ago, McCalls Magazine ran a cover with a Mylar mirror and the line, "The Woman of the Year is You."

We had a hell of a time finding enough of the stuff for millions of copies and making sure it stayed on the covers. Some readers complained about how it made them look.

When the editors of Time are finished with their self-congratulating specials on CNN, they might want to reflect on Harry Truman's aphorism at the top of this page.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

High-Speed Health Care

A New England Journal of Medicine report shows many doctors perform colonoscopies, spend less than six minutes and fail to find potentially dangerous growths.

This may be due less to physicians’ incompetence than pressures from their partners, the health insurers, to put patients on a souped-up assembly line.

Does it make sense to keep spending twice as much per capita for health care as any other nation and getting less because HMOs and insurance companies siphon off one out of every three dollars for their paperwork and profits?

There is growing clamor for reform across the political spectrum--from Newt Gingrich’s Center for Health Transformation, which stresses new technology, to Physicians for a National Health Program, which wants a public or quasi-public agency to oversee financing while delivery remains private.

When the Clintons tried in 1993, outcries over “socialized medicine” derailed them.

Since then, costs have ballooned, and coverage has shrunk. While we talk incessantly about life and death in Iraq, the casualties at home keep mounting. The next Congress should do something about both.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Vilsack: Can Competence Compete ?

Meeting Tom Vilsack is a reminder of how degraded American politics has become.

Start with his name. When the Iowa governor declared for President, even though he had been on the Democrats’ short list for VP in 2004, the universal reaction was “Huh?”

On the Daily Show, Jon Stewart superimposed the Aflac duck on his announcement, and comic Lewis Black told Larry King that Vilsack sounded like an unmentionable disease. (When Dukakis ran in 1988, his name was the least of his problems)

Less hilarious was a Des Moines political columnist’s reaction: “Polls show the governor runs badly in his own home state...and a majority of Iowans don’t think he should get into this race.”

Case closed.

Yet, at a recent Manhattan meeting with several dozen potential supporters, Vilsack was anything but the stereotype of a sure loser.

A thoughtful, plain-spoken man, Vilsack has a long, hard row to hoe, but he makes a strong case for competence in governing that may resonate with a public exhausted by the Bush years.

As an orphan with a troubled adoptive family history, Vilsack identifies with the struggles of working Americans to give their children good health care and a decent education.

Asked about his unfamiliarity with foreign affairs, he cites all the experience in the room when Bush decided to go into Iraq. “What was missing,” he says, “was judgment.”

The larger question raised by his candidacy is: Amid the 24/7 din of pundits, pollsters, standup cynics and logorrheic bloggers, can a straight-talking politician like Vilsack be heard?

In the 1990s, the Presidential process still had space for serious people like Bill Bradley, Richard Lugar and Mario Cuomo, but it was shrinking.

Bill Clinton may have been the tipping point. As the smooth governor of a small state, he broke through anonymity and leveraged Bush 41’s lack of “the vision thing” to the White House, balanced the budget and kept us out of war but also managed to get himself impeached and rendered impotent to take out Osama bin Laden by fear of “Wag the Dog” accusations.

Since then, it has been all downhill. Last month’s election was a national cry of pain, but where do we go from here?

In coming months, Vilsack's fate may offer some clues. In the Iowa caucuses, he is in a bind. If he wins, ho-hum, but he may then attract enough serious money and support to go on. If not, it’s over.

Undaunted, he welcomes all challengers and predicts he will prevail by getting through to the people of Main Street where he lives literally in Mt, Pleasant, Iowa and figuratively all over America.

Without the clout of Hillary Clinton or the high voltage of Barack Obama, Vilsack has his own quiet charm and confidence.

On December 18th, he will be interviewed by Jon Stewart on the Daily Show.

“We’re going to have some fun,” he says with a small smile.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

A Christmas Card to Ralph Nader

Dear Ralph: Haven’t heard much from you lately, but happy to see you are alive and well, working to “preserve the safety and quality of life for every American,” as your web site puts it.

But your recent suggestion that Bill Moyers run for President in ’08 as a third-party candidate is a wee bit troubling.

Age has a tendency to cloud our memories, so forgive me for pointing out what you surely know:

In 2000, your idealistic efforts for our safety and quality of life gave us George W. Bush by drawing 180 times the number of votes by which Gore lost Florida and three times the margin by which he fell short in New Hampshire.

The almost three million Americans who voted for you were an inspiration to us all, but please stop inspiring us to elect Presidents who take us into ruinous wars and pick Supreme Court justices who may destroy the Constitution.


Monday, December 11, 2006

Deprivation by Surfeit

Half a century ago, at the dawn of TV and before the Web, change was sluggish. It took years for new ideas and new people to grab the public imagination.

Now, we know everything instantly and we are in danger of what Lewis Mumford called "deprivation by surfeit," overwhelmed with more than we can digest and assimilate--too much in too little time to think about and understand.

The question comes up after the carpet-bombing of our senses with Barack Obama's rock-star tour of New Hampshire this weekend. Almost two years before the '08 election, he is a promising public figure.

But will the media devour him before we get a solid sense of who he is and what he may become?

In show business, disposable celebrities come and go with no social damage.

But, as we have learned to our sorrow in the past five years, picking a President is serious business. Give Obama and Americans a chance to get to know each other.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Cheap Grace and Invincible Ignorance

One of Adolf Hitler’s last orders before his death in April 1945 was to hang a 39-year-old minister named Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Bonhoeffer had opposed the comfort the German Church was conferring on believers while turning a blind eye to the inhumanity of the Nazis.

“Cheap grace,” he wrote, “is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance...absolution without personal confession.”

Ever since, Bonhoeffer has been a beacon to those of all faiths, or even none, whose beliefs lead to humility, self-sacrifice and good works rather than contempt for those who do not share their self-serving certainties.

“Invincible ignorance,” according to Catholic doctrine, excludes sin, since it leads those in that state to involuntary error.

As Sunday morning quarterbacks on “Meet the Press,” etc. try to predict what George Bush will or will not do after the report of the Iraq Study group, such reflections on religion are inspired in a secular humanist in the throes of despair about the ongoing bloodshed.

How do you get through the defenses of cheap grace and invincible ignorance?

Friday, December 08, 2006

If the Centrists Rise Up...

There has always been one sure bet in American politics: No Mayor of New York can get to the White House.

The charismatic John Lindsay was shot down in the 1972 primaries, but no one else came close.

Now we have Rudy Giuliani, still wearing his 9/11 halo, gearing up for the Republican nomination, and what’s this...?

“Bloomberg ‘08” blares a New York Magazine cover.

Jeff Greenfield on CNN does a piece on a “vertically challenged Jewish billionaire” running as an Independent in 2008, days before the network’s political guru Bill Schneider describes the Mayor as “a healer and conciliator.”

Even George Will gets into the act by calling Bloomberg the nation’s “leading Centrist.”

While Bloomberg urges others to run, his Deputy keeps telling reporters he “hopes the Mayor will change his mind” about not running himself (coyness cubed).

The non-candidate visits Jeb Bush in Florida and exchanges air-kiss compliments with Governor Arnold on the other coast after ladling out money and endorsements to save Congressman Chris Shays and Senator Joe in Connecticut.

With all the dark horses pawing at the starting gate, Bloomberg can afford to wait and see how the race shapes up until late next year.

If the nation seems ready for a plausible Ross Perot, Bloomberg’s fund-raising will consist of one phone call--to his personal bankers.


Wednesday, December 06, 2006

December 7, 1941 and 2006

Sixty-five years ago today, the world changed.

I was in a hospital next to a young man with a dazed grin, staring through a picture window as a nurse in white mask held up a sleeping baby. A minute later, she drew the curtain.

In those days, fear of germs kept newborns isolated, and the new father could get only a quick look. As a college student, my part-time job was to hand him a hospital gown and lead him to the window. The babies all looked alike. The real show was on our side of the glass: a man’s eyes flooding with pride, wonder and worry.

But on December 7, 1941, sudden death six thousand miles away shattered those tableaus of new life. Happy faces at mothers’ bedsides turned to stone, nurses and doctors looked lost behind their masks of composure. The Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor.

The next day, I was in the Great Hall of City College of New York, my eyes on a huge mural, a black-robed graduate amid flying cherubs and, in togas, the figures of Wisdom, Discipline and Alma Mater pointing to a bright future.

From a loudspeaker the voice of the only President I could remember (FDR took office on my ninth birthday) was telling of a day that will live in infamy and saying we are at war.

The day was a blur of rumor and fear. A history professor stopped a lecture on Victorian life. “You’ll hear the Japanese have poisoned the water and Nazi subs are off Staten Island,” he said, with a reassuring grimace. “Nothing will happen. Go home, do your homework.”

Every night at 8:55, breaking into the warm flow of radio comedy and dopey drama, the chilling voice of Elmer Davis told of battles in Europe and the Pacific. Older boys from my neighborhood were in unimaginable places, and I would soon be with them.

That was how the “Greatest Generation” came to its calling
--with a shock that would be unequaled until 9/11/01. The war was unseen but our imaginations, overheated by a recent Orson Welles’ broadcast of an “invasion from Mars,” produced pictures in our minds more horrifying than anything cable TV and the Internet give us now.

This week, despite all the news from Washington as leaders debate the war in Iraq, millions of Americans will go about their lives untouched by the life-and-death drama our young people there are living every day.

As a nation, we are swamped with information and images of this war, but do we feel a fraction of what we did on December 7, 1941?





Monday, December 04, 2006

A Busy Week in Washington

So it has come to this:

At 11 A.M. Wednesday, the Iraq Study Group will post its report on four web sites, James Baker and Lee Hamilton will hold a press conference, the TV screens will overflow with blather, Americans and Iraqis will keep dying in Baghdad, and the only suspense will focus on one question:

Is the President of the United States still out to lunch?

On Thursday, Baker and Hamilton will climb Capitol Hill to sit before the Senate Armed Services Committee at the invitation of Carl Levin, who is looking more and more like Santa Claus these days, and John Warner, whose ashen face appears to have been recently frozen under the strain of actually thinking about what he is saying.

Levin, who voted against going into Iraq, and Warner, who didn’t but was once married to Elizabeth Taylor, will strike thoughtful poses, their confreres will emit scripted sound bites, and Americans and Iraqis will be still be dying in Baghdad.

The media is going to have a busy week anticipating what the report will say, covering its release and analyzing the aftermath.

Americans and Iraqis will be dying in Baghdad, and will the President still be out to lunch?.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Coaltion of the Increasingly Less Willing

President Bush says American troops will stay in Iraq “until the job is complete” and there will be no “graceful exit.”

His certitude is apparently not infectious. Fifteen members of the “Coalition of the Willing,” including Spain, Norway and the Netherlands, have made their exits in the past three years. Japan, Italy and Poland are on their way out, and even the British are cutting back.

Before long, the White House’s bunker mentality, which, according to polls, is increasingly distancing the Administration from the American people, will be global.

If Bush prevails and we are the last to leave, at least we won’t have to remember to turn off the lights. In Baghdad these days, the power is on for only seven hours a day.


Thursday, November 30, 2006

Folk Wisdom

A stranger sees a farmer struggling with a mule that refuses to move, says, “Let me reason with him” and bashes a plank over the mule’s head.

“I thought you were going to reason with him,” the farmer says.

“I am, but first I have to get his attention.”

In the Middle East, a pious farmer is told he will be granted any wish, but his neighbor will get twice as much.

“Poke out one of my eyes,” he asks.

In the debate over Iraq, we are beyond rational thinking. “Iraq Panel to Recommend Pullback of Combat Troops” is a headline in today’s New York Times, which quotes President Bush in Latvia, “I’m not going to pull the troops off the battlefield until the mission is complete.”

For a President who has given new meaning to “often wrong but never in doubt,” the only plank in sight may be the power of the purse strings. How to get his attention without endangering our people in uniform is the problem a new Congress will have to solve.

Meanwhile, in Iraq, the eye-poking goes on.

Monday, November 27, 2006

If Wishes Were Horses

A reality check for Americans as they Christmas shop and prepare for holiday screenings of “It’s a Wonderful Life”:

The disaster in Iraq has lasted longer than World War II and killed more of us than the airliners that destroyed the World Trade Center on 9/11/01.

After expressing their pain at the polls, voters are getting the same talking heads spouting the same gibberish:

On “Meet the Press,” Congressmen and rent-a-Generals debate tactics for turning a killing ground for murderous zealots into a working democracy while Moqtada al-Sadr threatens to bring down the Maliki government if the Prime Minister even talks to President Bush.

On “60 Minutes,” the American commander, General Abizaid, bristles at an interviewer’s use of the word “defeat” and insists that “Iraq could stabilize.”

As my immigrant parents used to say, if wishes were horses, we would all be riding.

Friday, November 24, 2006

"Bobby" and Obama

On “The West Wing,” Martin Sheen embodied the fantasy of an idealistic President who gave us respite from the shoddy realities of the network news.

Now, his son Emilio Estevez has made a movie about Robert Kennedy, which has had the bad luck to open at the death of Robert Altman, inviting comparisons with one of the master filmmakers of all time.

But what is striking in reviews of “Bobby” is that, whatever its merits, it has evoked a longing for the meaning politics once had in American life.

In his New York Times review, A.O. Scott says that in the archival clips, Kennedy talks “with a quiet eloquence that sounds almost outlandish to present-day ears about the problems of poverty, prejudice, pollution and war.”

The Los Angeles Times reviewer notes that “the vitality of Kennedy” reminds us “we’re far removed from an age where politicians embraced issues and positions rather than middle-of-the-road centrism.”

It sounds like a movie that all those who are excited by the emergence of Barack Obama, and the young Senator himself, should see and take to heart.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Politics, Poetry and Posturing

Every November 22nd, older Americans wake up with a pang. More than four decades later, the death of John F. Kennedy still hurts.

It is more than nostalgia. At his inaugural, the poet Robert Frost foresaw “a golden era of poetry and power.” At Kennedy’s death, the world’s poets filled a volume with elegies and anguish.

Since then, poetry and power have gone their separate ways in our national life. As we look at today’s political landscape, is there any trace of JFK’s humanity in Hillary Clinton, John McCain, John Edwards, Rudy Giuliani or any other possible replacements for the robotic President we have now?

John F. Kennedy was far from naïve. There was more of the Irish politician than the Irish poet in him, but he made Americans feel there was a human being behind all the posturing that leaders have to do.

That’s what those of us who knew him miss most.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

President Candide

George W. Bush finally goes to Vietnam and, as usual, misses the point.

Back in Washington, John McCain, who was there when it counted, is agonizing publicly over the possibility of our having to leave Iraq with the humiliating scene of our people being air-lifted from the roof of the American Embassy in Saigon "multiplied a thousandfold."

Like Candide, seeing only that "All is for the best in this best of all possible worlds," Bush in Vietnam is preaching an Iraq homily that "We'll succeed unless we quit."

Somebody, perhaps Vice-President Pangloss, should tell Bush we lost in Vietnam and that the progress he was gushing over there came after we were thrown out.

He should also be reminded that Nixon, who got elected in 1968 with the promise of a "secret plan" to get out of Vietnam, stalled for half a dozen years before giving up, and even Bush must know what finally happened to him.

If the new Congress has a mandate, it is to get out of Iraq as quickly and decently as we can. Quitting and succeeding are beside the point.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Defining Deviancy Down, Rock Bottom

Just as politicians with their attack ads seem to have won the Gold in the Sleaze Olympics, along come O.J. Simpson, publisher Judith Regan and Fox TV to set new records for shamelessness with his hypothetical confession.

If the Gods are just, they will all be consigned to Publicity Hell, where they will never be heard from again.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Defining Deviancy Down, 2006

What would the Senate’s last sociologist, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, have made of this year’s election?

“We are getting used to a lot of behavior that is not good for us,” the late New York legislator wrote in 1993 in his now-famous American Scholar article, “Defining Deviancy Down,” arguing that society keeps adjusting for the amount of unacceptable conduct it can tolerate.

He pointed out that, in 1929, the killing of seven gangsters in Chicago became the stuff of legend while half a century later “Los Angeles has the equivalent of a St. Valentine’s Day Massacre every weekend.”

Moynihan would have been fascinated by how Republicans embraced his thesis this year in their campaigning while railing against it to terrify voters in their “cultural wars” ideology.

In efforts to elect candidates who would criminalize gay couples and women seeking abortions, politicians doing “the Lord’s work” stooped to new lows.

They tried to pass off Mark Foley’s electronic mash notes to teen-aged boys as “inappropriate” while trashing Harold Ford with a racist “Call me” commercial in Tennessee and attacking a New York Democrat for taxpayer-paid phone sex, based on a $1.25 misdialing of a legitimate call. That used to be called "lying."

If cultural conservatives are going to oppose making what they consider deviant behavior acceptable, they will have to stop using what everybody considers deviant tactics to defeat those who disagree with them.

Monday, November 13, 2006

McCain's Tin Ear

Has the high altitude of being the 2008 front-runner made John McCain politically tone-deaf?

First he swallows his principles to kiss Jerry Falwell’s hem before last week’s elections erase much of the “God gap” that make evangelicals vital to securing the Republican nomination.

Then yesterday, on “Meet the Press,” after backing Bush throughout the campaign, he continues to advocate sending more troops to Iraq, invoking victory and honor, as every other politician in Washington, including Bush, is groping for an exit strategy to the disaster.

Someone should tell the Senator there is a difference between being a maverick and stubbornly mistaken.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Bush's New Body Language

Since the elections, our President has been acting like the kid who got caught with his hand in the cookie jar.

Gone, for now, are the sanctimony and self-righteousness. Instead, we get good-ole-boyisms about a thumpin' and glazed-smile promises of bi-partisanship.

But when the photo ops are over, Democrats should remember that the cookie jar was the Constitution. They would do well to keep a tight lid on it and an eye on Bush's hand.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

The Karl Rover Boys Miss Their Chance

If the Republicans had not been dazzled by bringing out The Base, they might have seen an obvious answer to keeping control of the Senate.

Months ago, it was clear Joe Lieberman was in trouble. He won reelection this week only because Republicans fielded a non-entity who drew 10 percent of their party vote.

In a serious three-way contest, Christopher Shays, who squeaked through in the Fourth District with the help of Mayor Bloomberg’s get-out-the vote troops, or some other credible Republican could have taken the Connecticut seat with less than 40 percent of the ballots.

In 1968, Joe Flaherty wrote “The Selling of the President” to show that Nixon’s media manipulators had won the White House for him.

The truth is that, after the chaos of the Democrats’ convention in Chicago, Nixon led the polls by 15 per cent. Two months and $20 million dollars later, he won by less than one per cent.

Evil geniuses have always been overrated.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Father Knows Best?

Behind the mock-swagger of the President’s post-election press conference are clues to a possible sea change in the Bush family psychodrama.

Three years ago when Bob Woodward asked Bush II if he had consulted Bush I before invading Iraq, the President said he had consulted a “higher father,” leaving it unclear whether he meant God or Dick Cheney.

Now that the Veep’s alter ego, Rumsfeld, is gone, George W. is turning back to his birth roots in picking a confidante of George H.W. to succeed him and awaiting the Iraq Study Group report of another paternal friend, James Baker, to give him cover for an exit strategy.

If it weren’t all so deadly serious, it would be right out of a Seventies sitcom, the teenager taking the family car without permission, wrecking it and needing an understanding Dad to bail him out.

Life is Unfair

The comeuppance of George Bush’s Congress comes with its own ironies.
Lincoln Chaffee, who had the courage to vote against the war in 2002, is brought down in Rhode Island by Bush’s lowest approval ratings in the nation.
In neighboring Connecticut, Joe Lieberman, who whole-heartedly supported going into Iraq, survives his defeat in the Democratic primary, and is sent back to the Senate by the support of Republican voters, where as an Independent, he will have to wooed back into his own party.
As John F. Kennedy said, life is unfair.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

R.I.P, President Pitchman

The joy will go out of George W. Bush’s life on November 8, 2006. Whether or not Republicans hold on to Congress, Bush’s loss will be irreparable. He will no longer have what gives his existence meaning.

Before Monicagate, Maureen Dowd nailed Bill Clinton as “the only President who is still social-climbing,” a capsule for his combination of ambition, neediness and guile.

Bush is the only President who never stopped campaigning and started governing.

After November 7th, he will lose that. Karl Rove & Company may still provide reruns of his favorite milieu: hand-picked cheering crowds and brainless banners, catch phrases to demonize Democrats, self-satisfied smiles belaboring the obvious (9/11 changed the world) and twisting it to his needs (tear up the Constitution to get the terrorists).


But the real thrill will be gone—persuading voters to part with their rights as easily as carnival barkers sold elixirs to clueless rubes. Bush will be left only with press conference to smirk uncomfortably at reporters asking about real issues. As always, he will have no answers, only nostrums.

R.I.P, President Pitchman.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Bush's Best Bet for Posterity

As he faces his final years in the White House, George W. Bush should take a closer look at what two of his role models did in their second terms as Republican presidents.

Ronald Reagan stopped speechifying about the “Evil Empire” and launched an era of détente with the Soviet Union.

Richard Nixon, as yet unaware that Watergate would bring him down, went to China for what he termed “the week that changed the world.”

Reagan and Nixon were doing what lame-duck presidents do, securing their place in history by trying to get past the partisanship that elected them and taking a longer view of the national interest.

Or, to put it more crudely, they were selling out the extremists whose support they no longer needed and making a bid for posterity.

How will Bush define himself for the ages?

We should have the answer soon after Election Day when the Iraq Study Group makes its report. In responding, will Bush continue as a pitchman for the war or, at long last, do some actual thinking about what Cheney, Rumsfeld et al have wrought and begin to pursue alternatives to the disaster over which he has presided?

In straying from the course, George W. Bush has one last chance to undo some of the damage his Administration has done to our reputation in the world and, at the same time, rewrite the first draft of his legacy to history.

Shortly before he died, Lyndon Johnson gave me his assessment of Richard Nixon. “Not too much here,” LBJ said, pointing to his head and then holding his hand over his heart, “even less here.” Then he lowered it below his belt. “But enough down there.”

LBJ was wrong. If he and Nixon had not been so obsessed with their manhood, or the appearance of it, they could have saved years and lives getting out of Vietnam. History would have been kinder to them than it is now.

Will George W. Bush use his head and heart to avoid repeating those mistakes and follow Reagan’s lead into the sunset of his presidency? Those who detest him will not begrudge the 43rd President an upgrade in history if he stops the loss of American lives and treasure even at this late date.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The Obama Boom: He May Be Too Mature

To older ears, Barack Obama’s triumphal book tour with “The Audacity of Hope” has obvious echoes of John F. Kennedy and “Profiles in Courage.”

If anything, Obama in his forties is behind schedule. Kennedy wrote his book and entered the Senate in his thirties.

But half a century later, maturity comes in a different context. Obama’s cover stories and TV interviews are being seen against a background of campaign attack ads, the raw sewage of lies and slander that end with a butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-my-mouth face, beaming “I’m Joe Moron and I approve this garbage.”

To see Obama actually thinking and trying to be truthful on screen is almost shocking. When Tim Russert confronted him on “Meet the Press” with a year-old clip denying Presidential aspirations, he simply said that now he is thinking about it.

This kind of candor will inevitably be fodder for charges of immature flip-flopping, but two years from now, voters may be ready for a little truth-telling.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Making a Scene

In the 1982 movie “Tootsie,” Dustin Hoffman in drag is auditioning for a soap opera when the producer asks the cameraman, “I’d like to make her look a little more attractive. How far can you pull back?”

With no hesitation, he answers, ”How do you feel about Cleveland?”

That was the high point of my friend Leslie Goldman’s acting career—in truth, it was all of it. He was still getting small royalty checks at his death earlier this year. The only other remains of decades on film sets, in overheated halls and freezing streets are glimpses of him as human scenery in hundreds of movies.

You won’t find his name in a search of the Internet Movie Data Base, and only if you Google down deep will you learn he once flashed across the tube in judges’ robes for an ancient “Law and Order.”

As sons of immigrants, Les and I spent childhood in dark movie houses, watching how people behaved and talked in places where the ways of our parents would never do. The movies taught us how to be American.

After World War II, he went to law school, passed the bar but never practiced. It was only on movie sets doing extra work after joining the Screen Actors Guild that he found his calling in the world that had enchanted us as kids.

Once, when I asked if there wasn’t a better way of spending his days and nights than sipping stale coffee and schmoozing for a small check and no credit, he answered with that old punchline, “What? And give up show business?”

He was still doing it well into his seventies, sharing a joke with Jack Nicholson here, teasing Kim Basinger there while the lights and cameras were being moved. When the film was ready to roll, he moved back, staying in character and out of the spotlight. In the era of no-shame reality shows, Les made an art of fading into the background.

Now, on sleepless nights, I can always find him in an old movie, part of a crowd in “9½ Weeks” or “Cotton Club” or, my favorite, behind a deli counter in “When Harry Met Sally” while Meg Ryan shows Billy Crystal how women fake an orgasm.

With Meg moaning and customers staring, the camera keeps panning and, in the background, there is Les in a long white apron ignoring the hubbub and solemnly slicing salami, never looking up—-as always, staying in character, keeping it real, making the scene work.

He never gave up show business.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Time to Go

Two weeks before the election, President Bush tells us he's working on a "timetable" for getting out of the Iraq mess, but his is a real one not "artificial" like that of his critics.
Four years ago, he had a "road map" for peace in the Middle East.
Next month and two years from now, the voters may have their own travel plans for the Congress and White House that got us started on a six-year bad trip in that part of the world.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Obama's New Best Friend

The New York Times’ conservative Deep Thinker, David Brooks,
is in love. His October 19th column, “Run, Barack, Run” is a valentine
to the Democrats’ multiethnic White Hope of the future. That may
loosely translate as “Anybody but Hillary.”
Brooks, who has made an art form out of missing the point, wants
Obama to go for it in 2008 because “a president who brings a deliberative
style to the White House will multiply his knowledge, not divide it.”
Too bad Brooks didn’t pass that advice on to Bush when he was
supporting W’s decision to go into Iraq.

October Surprise

“I’ m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it any more!”
That line, from a 30-year-old movie written by my high-school classmate, Paddy Chayevsky, looks like the key to this election. In “Network,” it was a loony anchorman who inspired people to open their windows and yell. This year, Diebold willing, voters will vent their rage in the booth and give Democrats control of both houses.
As the scene shifts from Ted Turner’s old movie channel to his other brainchild, CNN, newly elected Dems may want to recall how “Network” ends. When the public doesn’t get what it wants, the hero get killed on camera.

Is Lou Dobbs Running for Something?

When a ubiquitous Big Name comes out with a book defending The Middle Class (today, anyone with TV), starts speechifying against “politicians” and shows up to trade mots with Jon Stewart and Bill Maher, the Memory Bank pops out Ross Perot.

Terrific, but one teeny problem: Lou Dobbs is a prime-time news anchor for CNN. Holy Cronkite! While The New York Times crucifies reporter Linda Greenhouse for a few off-the-cuff comments, Dobbs is opinionating everywhere about everything, without a peep from CNN.

If Dobbs is really planning to run for whatever, he’ll have to defend himself as a flip-flopper. A long-time Republican, defender of Big Business, business-news entrepreneur himself, he is now a born-again populist, with just trace of anti-immigration racism, but some may remember when he left CNN in 2000 in a huff after the network president wanted to cut away to live coverage of President Bill Clinton consoling parents at Columbine, which Dobbs argued was not newsworthy.

Myself, I prefer looking at Katie Couric on her surprisingly innovative new CBS gig to wincing at Dobbs’ smirks while he delivers the evening news.

What's Lee Hamilton Running For?

Nothing, and that’s what makes it news. After serving as co-chairman of the 9/11 Commission, former Congressman Hamilton is doing the same on the Iraq Study Group, which after Election Day may finally provide some semblance of bi-partisan exit strategy.

Watching Hamilton chair the House’s Iran-Contra hearings a quarter of a century ago, it struck me he should run for President in 1988.

It struck others, too, but the boomlet soon ended. “He told them he didn’t want to do it,” his aide announced, “he didn’t want to look into it, he just wants to keep doing what he’s doing.” The New York Times termed it “a standard of modesty believed to be extinct on Capitol Hill.”

Hamilton had skewered Ollie North, Bush pere and Reagan himself with a flat-out “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” simplicity:

“Policy was driven by a series of lies...A few do not know what is better for the American people than the people themselves.”

Whatever Hamilton and the Bush family rabbi James Baker recommend on Iraq, a howl from the conspiracy-minded left will claim that Hamilton shied away from Reagan’s impeachment, a decision he made “for the good of the country” to avert a disaster so soon after Nixon’s exit, and that he is Bush’s token Democrat as a reward.

It says something about politics today if integrity and even-handedness can only be seen as selling out.

The Buck Stops Where?

If he were alive, John F. Kennedy would be turning 90 next May. As an elder statesman, he could tell today’s politicians of both parties a lot about taking responsibility for their actions.

Dennis Hastert proclaims “The buck stops here” (pace Harry Truman) while ducking blame for an embarrassment on his watch.

George W. Bush and his Cabinet, in a “State of Denial,” try to persuade Americans that blunders in Iraq make them safer from terrorism.

Joe Lieberman asks voters to forget his cheerleading for the war.

President Bush, Speaker Hastert and Senator Lieberman, who cites President Kennedy as his inspiration for seeking office, should take another look at Kennedy’s experience.

Above all, he admitted mistakes, and the nation profited from his willingness to learn and grow in office.

Despite misgivings about the advice of the CIA and military, Kennedy went ahead with the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba after being told we would be greeted as liberators (sound familiar?) and withdrew after realizing he had been misled, accepting “sole responsibility” for the fiasco.

“This Administration intends to be candid about its errors,” he told the media afterward. “As a wise man once said, ‘An error doesn’t become a mistake until you refuse to correct it.’ We intend to accept full responsibility for our errors, and we expect you to point them out when we miss them.”

As the world teetered on the brink of nuclear war, JFK put his Bay of Pigs lesson to use by overruling “experts” who wanted to bomb or invade Cubs and trusting his own judgment.

With hard evidence of missiles 90 miles from our shores, he rejected advice for an air strike or invasion, lined up support from the United Nations, gave the Russians every chance to back down and, when they did, ordered that there be no gloating about victory. No CIA “slam dunk,” “Mission Accomplished” or “Bring it on!”

If Kennedy were alive, his advice for today’s politicians about human fallibility might not differ much from what he told me in an interview a few weeks before Dallas. The talk had turned to the brutal and violent instincts of human beings that, in his words, “have been implanted in us growing out of the dust.”

In controlling our destructive impulses, John Fitzgerald Kennedy said sadly, “we have done reasonably well--but only reasonably well.“