Saturday, November 21, 2015

Lady Liberty is Crying.

France gifted us the Statute of Liberty. It became the iconic symbol of who and what we are.  In 1883 thirty-four year old poet Emma Lazarus, daughter of a Sephardic Jewish family that had settled in New York long before the Revolution, penned the defining verse affixed to its wall.  They were words of welcome:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
Generations of refugees, my parents included, sailed past in New York Harbor, giving special meaning to Lazarus’ verse of welcome.  They became and are America.  Aside from the very few who can claim indigenous roots, we all descend from immigrants, many of them refugees from one tyranny or another.  We are a wonderful brew of races, ethnicities and religions.  It remains our unique identity.

It’s instructive that Lazarus’ words speak specifically to the “huddled masses”, the “wretched refuse” and the “homeless”.  Am I missing something, or have the xenophobic Republican presidential candidates, governors and legislators, not heard these words — even piously recited them at some patriotic event?  Apparently they are read or spoken by rote, without understanding.  Shame on them!  Of course, these are not the first American officials to turn their backs on endangered refugees.  In the early days of World War II, anti-Semitic State Department bureaucrats blocked Hitler refugees in the face of impending slaughter.   Japanese-American citizens were rounded up and put in detention because of who they were, not what they had done — nothing.

This past week, the governor of North Carolina joined mostly Republican colleagues across the country is asking the Obama Administration to halt its plans to welcome 10,000 Syrian refugees during the coming year.  He most certainly doesn’t want them in his state.  The House (with the support of 47 Democrats) passed a bill directing the director of the FBI, the Secretary of Homeland Security and the Director of National Intelligence to personally certify each individual refugee.  Right.  Consider this in the context of the fact that since 9/11 we have welcomed 784,395 refugees.  Of these 3 — that’s right 3 — individuals have been arrested on terrorist charges.  On the other hand, between 2001 and 2013 406,496 Americans have died from gun violence verses 3,800 from acts of terrorism.  Since 2011 (a White House email told me) the UN referred 23,092 Syrian refugees to the United States resettlement program. Less than a third of them (7,014) qualified for Homeland Security interviews.  Of them only 2,034 were admitted, that’s about 500 per year.  The average wait is one-two years.

I could go on.  These numbers remind me that many of the same governors defend state adopted vote supression laws to combat non-existant voter fraud.  But even worse than last week’s sorry display were suggestions by cadidates Bush and Cruz that we welcome only Christian refugees — our kind of folks.  Not to be undone, Donald Trump, who as the current front runner must be taken seriously if only that he has a substantial following among GOP voters, asserted that all Muslims in America be somehow registered so that we can keep tabs on them.  As the child of immigrants who fled Nazi Germany and as Jew I am particularly sensitive to — no outraged by —any such notion.   I have my maternal grandparents German identity cards, each bearing a yellow “J” (Jude) to set them apart from their “pure” German fellow citizens.  We can trace both of their ancestors back to the 1600s.  
My grandfather Max Goldsmith's identity card.
Thankfully, they too came to the United States (1939), but so many others did not.  Many died because they were turned away from here or elsewhere.  So I look at the homeless huddled masses from Syria as sisters and brothers to whom we should be lifting or light holding arms in a sign of welcome.

It’s hard not to single out Donald Trump here, despite his opponents in the nomination race being no different.  His first words as a candidate disdained immigrants, in this case Mexicans.  He advocated building a wall to contain us, a barrier to their onslought.  At the start of his campaign many of us looked at The Donald as a showman, a bafoon in some mock reality show role.  I’ve changed my view.  I think he is more like Huey Long than a circus barker.  He is a demogogic who leverages fear and hate for his own power hungry ambitions.  He brings to mind numeroius dictators who came to power either after a coup or equally often by espopusing an ersatz populism that speaks to the worst human instincts.  He has to be taken seriously not only as an individual, but also as one who has, depspite the most outragerous pronouncements, found a substantial following.

I’ve written in other posts that this is an important election.  In light of the hysteria inflamed by candidates and public officials in the last week, 2016 will also be a test for America and our democracy.   Lady Liberty represents who we have been, our openness, hospitality and largesse.  The question is whether she reflects the America of both our time and going forward?  It seems to me that the task we face is to wipe the tears running down her cheek and, through our votes, reaffirm that we remain and will always be a home for the free and the brave.

Sunday, November 8, 2015


October was good to Hillary Clinton.  After months of unease — the self-inflicted email troubles didn’t help — her star shined bright in both the first Democratic debate and before a Congressional lions den.  She came well prepared for both, something of a trademark attribute.  Hillary takes appearances seriously, sometimes at the cost of spontaneity.  But thoughtful preparation is exactly what one would hope to see in a president.  Rehearsed zingers aside, that is notably MIA on the Republican side.  Did she win in Las Vegas?  Probably yes, if you view the process as a sports event.  I prefer not to.  As to that circus  parading as serious fact-finding, she more than acquitted herself — the consummate professional in the presence of hostile blustering clowns.  Some say she looked presidential; they looked anything but.

What’s interesting in this primary season is how few policy differences there are between competing candidates on either side.  Style is another story, especially among Republicans (think Trump and Carson).  This partisan “togetherness” is just another reflection of how homogenous the parties have become within, and conversely, how polarized they are set against each other. Republicans have abandoned any pretense of even a small tent by effectively purging or marginalizing any member who does not march lockstep within a narrow conservative-right circle.  Moreover, they seem to be going out of their way in alienating Latinos, African Americans, Asians and, of course, women.  In contrast, the Democrats actively seek big tent diversity; they still accommodate some right of center office holders.  That said, Clinton, Sanders and O’Malley all identify as progressives, probably representative of where their party at large is or is heading.  The bottom line: more than in the past, we have a fairly closely defined party of the Moderate Left and a party of the Hard Right.  Those positions have solidified during the Obama years but they have been long in coming.  The result, as Jonathan Chait put it in a recent New York Magazine post, “…the dominant fact of American politics is that nobody is changing their mind about anything.”

The fluidity that existed within parities in much of the last century — their respective big tents — is gone.  I agree with Chait’s analysis.  If you share this view, it’s hardly surprising that the “debates”, on both sides exposed almost no substantive policy disagreements among each party’s candidates.  Democrats may express nuanced differences, and Bernie may claim to have come to progressive positions earlier, but today they sing from a single hymnal.  If for no other reason than the sheer number of contenders, Republicans seem most focused on projecting their differentiated persona.  They mouth slogans and pretend they are engaging on policy.  Since their ideology is indistinguishable, they spend time seeing how each can outdo the other in singing (or shouting) the same songs.  To distract us, they are now engaged in that old favorite, a full throttle attack on the unfair prejudiced “liberal media”, which I assume now includes Fox News.  They are not the first politicians to shift blame on journalists when things are not going their way or to avoid hard questions.  Nevertheless, listening to their collective gripe, one would think they are an unjustly persecuted and beleaguered minority rather than holders of the majority on the Hill and across many state legislatures and governor’s mansions.  It rings as true as claims that Christians are being persecuted in a country with a still predominantly Christian population.   We all should be so disadvantaged.

Anyone who regularly reads these posts knows I have been struggling with Hillary Clinton’s 2016 candidacy, much as I did eight years ago.  Dynasty has always been one of my concerns, perhaps too much so.  In all fairness since John Quincy Adams ascended to the presidency, and likely before, office holding has been a family business: fathers and sons, husbands and wives (often widows), siblings and cousins.  The disaster of George W Bush probably made many of us more sensitive to its downside.  Jeb’s candidacy, albeit inept, hasn’t helped.  On the other hand, the performance of father/son Governors Brown of California or brothers Senator/Congressman Levin of Michigan speak to the strengths of a family vocation.  There are countless examples, most notably the cousins Roosevelt.  I shouldn’t hold Bill against Hillary and indeed things went pretty well for us during his tenure.

I was also troubled by Hillary’s hawkishness and remain so.  While she regrets her Iraq vote, taking it wasn’t surprising when it came.  She was among Obama’s more hawkish advisors while at State.  That said, in contrast to the gun happy GOP field — there isn’t a war they wouldn’t have someone else’s kids fight — she is a raging dove. 

What Clinton does bring to the table, as she did in ’08, is her gender.  It’s what made having to choose between her and potentially the first African American president so painful.  It’s a gross understatement to say that we are long overdue in electing a woman to the White House.  It’s time to break, not merely to crack, that glass ceiling.  She alone — forget smooth talking Carly — is positioned to do so.  It isn’t only that she’s a woman, but perhaps the “perfect transitional figure”, as Gail Collins put it in her excellent column about women and the presidency.  Of course, being a woman is not enough.  Secretary Clinton doesn’t have to rely on her gender to make the case.   She has the résumé.  As the spot light shines on today’s presidential aspirants none on either side is more capable or more prepared.  She has had a central place at the table in facing our national/international opportunities and challenges for more than two decades.  She was a senior policy advisor to her husband; perhaps the most influential first lady since Eleanor Roosevelt.  She was respected across the aisle while serving in the Senate, and a hard working State Secretary.  I twice, and happily, voted for her to represent us in New York.

At this moment, Hillary is ahead in most polls, probably decisively.  Her lead was solidified by those star performances in Las Vegas and Washington.  Latest reports suggest that she sent no classified emails from her private account.  Bernie Sanders is out on the stump.  Perhaps behind in the polls, he nonetheless is drawing huge enthusiastic crowds including many young people.  He is successfully crowd-funding — his contributions are predominantly small.  Bernie’s success, contained as it might ultimately be, shines a light on Hillary’s primary weakness.  She suffers an enthusiasm gap, even as she gains support and seems headed for the nomination.  I was a passionate supporter of Barack Obama.  At this point, my support for Hillary Clinton is more muted, all from the head not the heart.

Intellectually, I know that she is more than qualified to be our president.  While I will continue to have concerns about her hawkishness, she has clearly moved to the left since last running and I have no reason to doubt that is backed up by conviction, a rethinking of issues and our needs.   I for one don’t fault leaders who change their mind; I am actually more comfortable with them.  One of our greatest problems today is that so many people in power, including sadly our highest court, have ideologically fixed positions that seem immune to facts, especially contrary facts.  I do feel passionately about the prospect of a Ms. President.  In that there is absolutely no enthusiasm gap.

It may well be that the head is enough, that it even trumps the heart.  As the author and former editor Jeffrey Frank put it so well in a New Yorker post this week, running for office is “dangerously removed from the realities of governing.”  That’s true for the candidate and equally true for us, the voters.  As I’ve noted before, it’s why so many of those who enthusiastically — heart over head — supported and turned out for Senator Barack Obama were disappointed in President Obama.  But however “dangerously removed”, I do think that enthusiasm does count if for no other reason than our being such an irresponsibly lazy electorate.   Only 30% of eligible voters turned out in Kentucky last week, likely a prime reason the governor’s mansion changed hands.   Democrats can be the laziest most irresponsible voters — good at complaining terrible at delivering the only thing we have in the political process.  Think not only last week but also 2014 and most “off year” elections.  Check out Republican victories in those years.  They vote.  We can’t afford to be lazy in fulfilling our obligation of citizenship.  Yes, Hillary, we need you to make us more enthusiastic, more passionate, about your candidacy, but most of all we have to get ourselves together.  No excuses, it must be done.

Thursday, October 29, 2015


A few days ago, Bernie Sanders appeared for an hour on Charlie Rose.  The Vermont Senator who has gained traction among potential Democratic primary voters, including many young people, calls himself a Socialist-Democrat.  Regardless of labels his classic progressive views differ hardly at all from people like me.  Indeed, what struck me in watching their conversation was just how compatible our positions.  Bernie supports universal Medicare, free public university, infrastructure investment, public financing of political campaigns, reinstatement of Glass Steagall, breaking up too-big-to-fail banks and aggressive action to combat climate change.  So do I.

It isn’t only the gap between the 1% and everyone else that animates him, but also how the system — political and otherwise — is rigged to keep that disparity in place.  Further enabled by Koch brothers (whom he repeatedly mentioned by name) and other billionaire money, that system is broken.  Bernie Sanders is equally disturbed by the media’s focus on polls, gaffs of the day and the like rather than on the substantive issues that should and are not being covered.  To him, the Rose interview, focused on real issues, was a refreshing exception.  Again, I agree.

Bernie is clearly frustrated with the state of our democracy and its inequities.  In that, he reflects an unease writ large.  But Sanders’ anger, while certainly echoing this widespread frustration, is grounded in the positive idea that we can do better.  He wants us to live up to our exceptionalism, not the kind that says we’re superior to others, but the one that reflects our special and innovative national character.  Some think Bernie is the Democratic version of Trump and other “outsiders” seen on the Republican side.  Nothing could be further than the truth.  For one, he is a long sitting Senator.  But more important, as I’ve written before, they voice the anger of constituents who feel disenfranchised from an assumed entitlement, a controlling place at the table.  Theirs is a rejection of the “Other”.  Some among them also perceive an existential challenge to their conservative Christian beliefs and ways.  Bernie isn’t that.  He may be angry but, if anything, it is against the very idea of exclusiveness.  Bernie is inclusive.  Unlike theirs, his quest has had a positive effect on both the discourse and country.

While struck by the commonality of our views, I nonetheless remain mindful that campaigning and governing are not the same.  Perhaps that’s why, despite a powerful message and a passionate loyal following, he remains substantially behind in the measures that make for a nomination — polls, endorsements and, his unquestioned successes notwithstanding, money.  Unless something still unforeseen presents itself, Hillary will likely prevail.  Presidents, as Barack Obama has learned, have a significant role in setting the agenda and certainly in proposing, but ultimately it is the legislative branch that disposes.  All the things that Sanders would like to accomplish take Congressional action.  His laundry list is bold, and rightly so, but getting even a portion of it enacted (especially with a House that may remain in GOP hands) is a very tall order.

In the first debate, Secretary Clinton summed up the difference that probably accounts for her still commanding lead.  She described herself as “a progressive who likes to get things done”.  I may find myself more closely aligned with Sanders’ overall views, but know moving ahead will require pragmatic skills that may not be uppermost in his toolbox.  What I do feel, more so than at the start, is that his candidacy and vigorous voice have had a major impact on the direction of both the campaign and his party.  Hillary’s self-description as a “progressive” is in itself something new.  More important, her current positions lend substance to that claim.  Some may say she was forced to the left, but I like to believe that Bernie and others gave her license be there.  Whatever the reason, there is a minimal difference between them on most key issues.  She may be late, as he rightly points out, but that she has come to the present place makes me more hopeful.

This is going to be a critical election.  The difference between the parties has never been greater.  Bernie Sanders, along with colleagues like Elizabeth Warren, have helped change the narrative by clearly articulating the goals to which Democrats should aspire in this second decade of the twenty-first century.  Those goals are catching up to what many of us have long thought they should be.  He may not win the nomination, but he certainly deserves our great respect and thanks.  Bernie has made a difference.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Stop the world.

“I’m getting old at just the right time.”  George HW Bush

The first President Bush is old and he is frustrated.  His beloved Jeb is struggling when early money gathering suggested a possible sail to the nomination.  But what really gets to him is the state of the party with which his family has been closely associated since father Prescott was elected senator from Connecticut in 1952.  At this point Bush is somewhat relieved — getting old at the right time — that he won’t have to witness where it all ends.  He’s clearly not optimistic.  I’d venture that the former president is not alone in that regard.  Many of his age look at what’s become of our politics, the chaos abroad, widespread economic imbalance and endangering climate change with equal unease.  Perhaps more than then, they can truly relate to the title of Anthony Newley’s 1960s musical: Stop the World: I Want to Get Off.

Of course, the fact that the Stop the World idea resonated more than five decades ago — albeit on more on a personal level for Newley’s “Littlechap” character — should give us some comfort.  Others before us have witnessed frustrating times and somehow humanity muddled through, even thrived.  That may be reassuring, but it doesn’t exactly make one feel sanguine about our time.  The vast majority of the world’s population has most of their lives ahead of them.  Political and perhaps more so ethnic/religious turf strife is bound to be with us for some time to come.  2015 is expected to be the hottest year on record, likely by some margin.  Just days ago we had the strongest hurricane ever recorded in our hemisphere.  Fortunately, mountains quickly broke it up, but it was a stark reminder that storms are likely to increase in ferocity going forward.  If we don’t take immediate and drastic action to slow things down, which seems unlikely, most people alive today will be living with resultant destruction, not to mention, among others, increasingly limited water and food supply.

Part of the ugliness that troubles President Bush was on display last week as Hillary Clinton faced what Maureen Dowd described as, “a bunch of pasty-faced, nasty-tongued white men”.  To call this fact-finding would be a disservice to an important part of Congressional duty.  Theirs was a classic witch-hunt, one that expressed the state of our disunion.   Couple that with the contest of essentially same-page rightist candidates — none would be measurably better than the other — and you can see what puts the former chief executive on edge.  Of course we shouldn’t forget that the Bush clan played a significant role in heading the party in its current direction.  He appointed Clarence Thomas, perhaps the most reliable rightist member of the current Supreme Court.  His son followed on with Roberts and Alito not to mention quagmire wars we can’t shed, affluent-tilted tax cuts and a resultant ballooned deficit.

It’s that deficit that has become the clarion call and primary justification for his party’s relentless attempt to gut and thus weaken, if not destroy, the federal government.  If I were prone to conspiracy thinking, which I’m not, it wouldn’t be far fetched to suggest that putting what has become a deficit tool in place was his intended objective.  He may not have been quite that calculating.  As to Jeb, we all know that he is not his grandfather’s New England moderate Republican — Prescott Bush was, yes, an early and active supporter of Planned Parenthood and the United Negro College Fund.  The current pretender to the family throne ran Florida as a consistent doctrinaire conservative.  Perhaps the only exception was immigration, but he’s surely backed off from that as well.

In the end, I’m not really sure what’s bothering George HW Bush, the former number two to conservative ultra-hero Ronald Reagan.   It may be that the road on which they set the party has taken a much further right turn the two hoped or expected.  Perhaps. But it may be something entirely different.  Prescott Bush was a patrician of the banker moneyed class.  His son and grandsons may have relocated to Texas and Florida, but Kennebunkport remains the locus of their family togetherness.  However far they all may have moved to the right, that money class connection remains a constant.  Their people have been the “establishment” that somehow steered presidential nominations toward candidates of their liking, ones who could function within their orbit.  Perhaps the former president is as much, if not more, dismayed by the potential erosion of that establishment control than of the ideological turn that, after all, can be seen as a natural progression.  So, what he would rather not witness is a loss of power that, when held, trumps all else.

Many Democrats may feel similarly if not equally dismayed.  Somehow we’ve always looked at this “establishment” as a tempering force, one that keeps the crazies at bay.  But truth be told, that sense of restraint may be more in our own minds — talking to ourselves — than is merited.  George W, John McCain and Mitt Romney were all establishment choices.  More to the point, the establishment blessed the elder Bush who, even before appointing Thomas, embraced Lee Atwater, the model of the take-no-prisoners campaigning that wrought the Tea Party and brought its “Freedom Caucus” to life.  Perhaps the current crop of Republican office holders like to pay lip service to the “Gipper”, but their ways can be equally credited to the post 1988 Bush clan.  George HW Bush's establishment gang may be losing its grip, but when all is said and done, it makes no substantive difference.  He may say he is “getting old at the right time”, but the political trouble he will leave behind is in large measure the harvest of his own planting.