Monday, December 31, 2007

Not in a Sellng Mood

They spent with abandon in Iowa.  Records were shattered.  That all of this money and time was expended in such a small rural state is an anachronism of an outmoded and broken primary system.  The pundits fall all over themselves rationalizing this overblown silliness; telling us how valuable the process.  I for one don’t revel in the pride of Iowan engagement but am undone by the shame of its absence almost everywhere else.  Our way of electing Presidents is broken, and Iowa is but one ugly symptom of the disease that desperately awaits a cure before it does us all in.  But let’s leave that for another day.  Let’s talk money, the thing we seem to covet above all else.

McCain Feingold notwithstanding, money in campaigns is like water encountering boulders in a running stream.  It finds its way around them.  Thanks to Al Gore’s Internet, contributions this time around are more egalitarian and widespread than they were in former years, but the amounts are nonetheless staggering, if not obscene.   We talk about the billions going down the drain in Iraq when they could be used to fix our healthcare system or teach our kids.  Campaign money pales in comparison, but so much of it is similarly misspent.  John Edwards bemoans powerful corporate power, and he is absolutely right.  Out there in Iowa he’s spending his share enriching the local media tycoons.  I’m not pointing a finger at him, but at the system.  But here again, it’s not the money in play right now that has gotten my attention.  It’s the money that might be spent in the New Year.

The New York Times and Washington Post are reporting that billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg is once again flirting with the idea of an independent presidential run.  Ross Perot redux.  Bloomberg, it is said, is being encouraged by ex-Senators David L. Boren and Sam Nunn; self-appointed sages stepping in to save the day for bi-partisan cooperation.  If the candidates don’t commit to working with the other party, they threaten, Mike will be taking the stage.  Ah, Ralph Nader with big bucks.  As Mr. Scrooge would say, bah humbug.  The Democrats are locked in a tight race because their field is so good and well liked.  The Republicans race is also tight, but for the opposite reason.  Boren and Nunn to the rescue.  How more transparent can this effort by two conservatives, albeit of different parties, be?  Bloomberg, they reason, could snatch victory from those Liberals whose demise was greatly exaggerated and who are now, thanks to what Conservatives have wrought, on the upswing.

If you think Mitt Romney is a political opportunist, he has nothing on Mike Bloomberg.  A long time Democrat, he switched parties to run for Mayor of New York six years ago.  Term limited, he switched to independent the moment he began seeing himself as the possible heir to the Perot legacy.  Now don’t get me wrong.  Bloomberg has been a good mayor, much better and less divisive than Rudy.  He has been innovative, particularly in education.  My problem with him, and I have the same with John Corzine of New Jersey, is that he bought the city in 2001.  Now he wants to buy the country.

It’s bad enough that people of limited means can’t afford seeking elective office and that members of Congress are forced to spend more time raising funds than legislating.  The idea that someone from the privileged class can literally buy an office takes our unequal system to a new, and low, level.  I have no problem with Bloomberg being a billionaire, nor does it disqualify him from holding public office.  But the idea that he should have an elective edge on everyone else because he’s fabulously wealthy wasn’t quite what the Founding Fathers had in mind.  I don’t suggest that the mayor doesn’t see himself as qualified.  He may be truly disturbed by the rancor that has taken hold in the land, but it just doesn’t seem credible that his concern is not trumped by ambition and a greed for power.  Perhaps spending your own money guarantees that you will not be in the pocket of special interests, but how about all of us being in your pocket?

Needless to say, a Bloomberg candidacy in a year that Democrats rightly have some hope of regaining the White House is most disturbing.  Siphoning off the independent voters that any victor needs will put this race into play and not in favor of the spoiler.  It will also produce yet another chief executive who must govern with the support of less that 50% of the electorate.  If the eminent former Senators (who have made the most of their post Washington years) and the Mayor (who told us he was headed for full time philanthropy) think gridlock prevails now, just contemplate what it might be after they’re finished with us.

Mike, you’re a great guy.  Your mother is rightly proud of what you made of yourself.  But we are not for sale.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Vladimir and Bill

Vladimir Putin and Bill Clinton have something in common.  They both desperately want another term in office.  Term limits have put them in a box, but these are talented and inventive men.  Putin of course is advantaged by a system that is more democratic in name than in reality.  So he’s devised a work around that will allow him both to step aside and to remain in place at the same time.  Clinton, forced to step aside in 2000, has his own path to resurrection – it’s the marriage card.  But the wedding “I do” doesn’t automatically translate into the office oath taking “ I do”.  That’s the rub and it accounts for why the former President, perhaps even more than his spouse, is sounding desperate these days.  Warning us that we’re rolling the dice, he insinuates that Barack should hold back much as he did in the election cycle that preceded his 1992 race.  He points to Northern Ireland that turned to old (literally) hands, people of experience and of the past to guide them into the future.  Does that suggest Hillary is a former terrorist?  Certainly not, but it’s a silly convenient argument.  It also has that “wait your turn” approach that we normally associate with Republicans.  It served Clinton well in running against Bob Dole.  Would it serve it serve the GOP as well if Democrats bought into that notion?

I like Bill Clinton.  He has every reason to be proud of his Presidency and has used his time well (not to mention lucratively) during these past seven years.  His political and communicative skills remain unmatched.  That said, he has a voracious need to be in the spotlight, the center of attention.   The prospect of having to share that center, which would be the case in a Hillary administration, is already a big compromise.  Being sidelined by an upstart in his own party is an excruciating prospect.  Clinton also carries negative baggage, and I don’t mean his zipper problem.  He triangulates and is not above shading the truth when it fits his preferred narrative – he was against Iraq from the start.  He also is not above rewriting history, something that we expect from Putin’s Russia but not here.  That includes the reasons he didn’t run in ’88.  He says he wasn’t ready, but virtually every commentator has pointed out his concern about…yes his gubernatorial zipper problem. 

For a man who became governor of his state at age thirty-two, suggesting that Barack Obama is too young or too green – not ready – is a bit disingenuous.   Who between them had the real audacity of ambition?  So the Clinton campaign has gone nasty which perhaps is all right, but their efforts at deniability are both transparent and unseemly.  Hillary didn’t know, Bill just says whatever comes to his mind and Penn, well his repeating cocaine over and over again on Chris Mathews absolutely wasn’t calculated.   Give us a break.

There is a downside to Bill’s increased visibility and all the talk of his having taken a more active role in directing the campaign.  It brings the idea of a co-President to the fore.  Without question, many Americans have yearned for Clinton during the last disastrous years; have wished that term limits didn’t exist.  At the same time, we now have a seasoned co-President in office and look where it has gotten us.  No I’m not comparing Bill and Dick nor certainly Hillary and George, but there is something off-putting about the idea that our President needs a “co-“.   Moreover, second acts aren’t always as satisfying as the first, sometimes they’re just plain awful.  There is also something else.  People with great talent and oversized egos think that the world can’t function without them at the helm.  Looking at the Bush years, Clinton has some reason to buy into that idea.  But the truth is it can and it does.  None of us, no matter how talented and seemingly essential we are, is irreplaceable.  I’m sure Jack Welch thought GE would never be the same without him.  Not to worry it’s humming along just fine, thank you.  So can America without a Clinton or a Bush at its helm.  At least that’s the way I see it and for sure I may be proven wrong.  If I am, be assured that on January 20th of 2009 I’ll be wondering when we can expect Jeb to start preparing to take his turn.  Rest assured, he’s thinking about it at this very moment.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Race Card

Mike Huckabee apologized to Mitt Romney.  No he didn’t think Mormons see Jesus and the devil walking hand in hand.  Hillary Clinton apologized to Barack Obama, and this time the issue was drugs.  The first apology was just another manifestation of the ongoing religious drama in the Republican race; the second is far more disturbing.  Clinton has been under the gun in recent weeks and for the second time she is having husband problems.  The first husband of course was Bill Clinton whose claim of being opposed to Iraq from the beginning was just a reminder of the couple’s predilection to shade the truth to meet their own needs.  The second husband was Billy Shaheen, not her own but that of New Hampshire’s former Governor and present Senate candidate Jean.  Shaheen’s “unauthorized” musing to reporters about Obama’s youthful drug use – self-confessed in his book, contained explosive innuendo, and I would argue not so subtle racism.

Reported on the Washington Post’s website, Mr. Shaheen speculated about a possible vulnerability for a candidate who is known to have used drugs. He said, “It’ll be: ‘When was the last time? Did you ever give drugs to anyone? Did you sell them to anyone?’ There are so many openings for Republican dirty tricks. It’s hard to overcome.”  Speak about dirty tricks.  No I’m not talking about reminding us that Senator Obama did inhale in his youth, but of what followed, the sharing and selling, read “dealing”.  An African American, drug dealing – could we have a more overt appeal to racial stereotypes?  The only thing that’s surprising about this event is that no one seems to have picked up on its insidious nature.  Let’s remember, Mr. Shaheen’s resignation from his campaign role notwithstanding, who put this particular piece of dirt out there when Nominee Obama faces the predicted dirty tricks that are such an inevitable part of our politics.

Obama’s candidacy will inevitably put America’s attitude toward race to the test.  There are many who are already convinced that a person of color can’t be elected to our highest office.  I don’t share that view, but neither to I underestimate the prejudice that lies just beneath the surface in this, the world’s greatest democracy.  So, too, as the Huckabee-Romney flap shows does religious prejudice.  With our reputation in the world so badly tarnished, we would be well served to prove that our better instincts will prevail.  Billy Shaheen should be ashamed of himself.  This was much worse than kindergarten essays.  As Bill Clinton would say, Hillary can do better than that.  Or can she? 

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Jack's Talk, Mitt's Sermon

John F. Kennedy delivered his famous speech to the Houston Ministerial Association on September 12, 1960.  It remains among the great documents of American history.  The speech was designed to address a nasty whisper campaign and to assuage those questioned if someone of his faith could serve as President without Vatican interference.  Kennedy spoke mostly about religious freedom and religious prejudice, the things he fought to protect in the South Pacific and for which his brother Joe had died.  “I believe”, he said, “in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute.”  It was a message that rang throughout the text. But he also faced the issue of anti-Catholic prejudice head on.  Never once did he let his audience forget why he had come to speak.  In a 1555 word speech the word Catholic appears 17 times.  He made it clear that he would remain true to his faith, but also that the specifics of that faith were a private matter.  He mentioned God but once, and that in quoting the oath of office that he hoped to take in the months ahead.  His message was one of inclusion and of tolerance for religion.  There was no call for religion to enter the public square.  It was for the rights of people to attend any church or no church at all.  Toward the end he got to perhaps the most critical message, “I am not the Catholic candidate for President. I am the Democratic Party's candidate for President who happens also to be a Catholic.”

What a difference 47 years can make.  Mike Huckabee, the self-proclaimed “Christian Candidate” for President, is rising in the polls.  His affable personality, notwithstanding, positioning himself as such in a political ad may be a first, certainly in my memory.  It is diametrically opposite to what Kennedy hoped would characterize America’s future.  It was also to the Huckabee surge, and the fear that his candidacy was threatened by it, that finally brought Mitt Romney the Bush library in Texas.  Romney associated his talk with that of JFK but it could not have been more different.  It was longer, 2540 words and the word Mormon appeared only once.  “I believe in my Mormon faith and I endeavor to live by it. My faith is the faith of my fathers – I will be true to them and to my beliefs.”  God is mentioned 13 times.  Kennedy may have seen his belief as a private matter, Romney told us more than I wanted to know of a Presidential candidate.  I believe” he proclaimed, “that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of mankind”.  He also told less than others may have wanted to hear.  “My church's beliefs about Christ may not all be the same as those of other faiths.”  They, it would seem, wanted to know if he was a Christian, which seems to be important to the Republican candidates this year (see my recent post).  To be sure Romney made some clear statements about tolerance upon which he clearly relies.  I agree with him. 

Unlike Kennedy in Houston, Romney made no claim for absolute separation of church and state.  Instead there was this: “…in recent years, the notion of the separation of church and state has been taken by some well beyond its original meaning. They seek to remove from the public domain any acknowledgment of God.  Religion is seen as merely a private affair with no place in public life. It is as if they are intent on establishing a new religion in America – the religion of secularism. They are wrong.”  Romney’s proclaimed tent is big, but not sufficiently so to accommodate non-believers.  He speaks about secularism as if it some sort of conspiracy, perhaps equivalent to the “Communist menace” of the 1950s.  It is a profoundly disturbing message, one that flies in the face of his proclaimed tolerance.  Romney, it would seem, is uncomfortable with the idea of our secular democracy. 

He follows his attack on the secular menace with these words: "The founders proscribed the establishment of a state religion, but they did not countenance the elimination of religion from the public square. We are a nation 'Under God' and in God, we do indeed trust.  We should acknowledge the Creator as did the Founders – in ceremony and word. He should remain on our currency, in our pledge, in the teaching of our history, and during the holiday season, nativity scenes and menorahs should be welcome in our public places.”  In that regard, perhaps his most striking and telling remark, one that goes far beyond a constructionist view of the Constitution, is this.  “Our greatness”, he says, “would not long endure without judges who respect the foundation of faith upon which our Constitution rests.”  Imagine what music that is to the ears of opera buff Antonin Scalia.

Romney’s talk is not of a Presidential candidate who happens to be a Mormon, but more of a pretender to national religious leadership.  Consider these words, “I will take care to separate the affairs of government from any religion, but I will not separate us from the God who gave us liberty.  Nor would I separate us from our religious heritage.“  Somewhat later he adds, "I have visited many of the magnificent cathedrals in Europe. They are so inspired ... so grand ... so empty. Raised up over generations, long ago, so many of the cathedrals now stand as the postcard backdrop to societies just too busy or too 'enlightened' to venture inside and kneel in prayer.  The establishment of state religions in Europe did no favor to Europe's churches.  And though you will find many people of strong faith there, the churches themselves seem to be withering away.”  As with Huckabee’s claim of being the Christian Candidate, I can’t remember a Presidential contender and certainly not a holder of the office who felt it appropriate to comment upon, much less decry, the “withering away” of churches, albeit attributed to state religions which are contrary to the American approach.  Finally toward the end of this sermon, Mr. Romney makes this exclusionist comment, “Any believer in religious freedom, any person who has knelt in prayer to the Almighty, has a friend and ally in me.”

Rudy Giuliani told a reporter that he agreed with everything Mr. Romney had said.  Mike Huckabee still won’t comment on whether his opponent is a Christian.  The Democratic candidates may have been disturbed by the speech, but just won’t go there.  If you think immigration is a third rail, faith is the radioactive zone.  And the press, well they looked at this speech only in the context of whether it did the political job hoped for by the former Governor.  It would appear they didn’t really read or listen to the text, but then again why would they enter that hornet’s nest.  The rest of us should be concerned.  If the Romney message reflects where we are or where we’re going, the country is in worse trouble than any of us might hope.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

God and Politics

If you want to feel good about being a Democrat, just watch the kind of debate held in Florida last night among the GOP’s presidential hopefuls.  To be sure, the candidates were not in control of the questions, which CNN selected from citizen U-Tube submitted clips.  That said, it’s fair to assume that those asked reflected the perceived core interests of the candidates and their Republican primary voters.  No healthcare, economy, environment and scant little about education came to the fore as the eight white men scrambled instead to claim who best could protect us from illegal immigrants, abortion and taxes, not to mention insure our well stocked gun closets.  As to Iraq, John McCain and Fred Thompson (more tepidly) proclaimed we’re “winning”.  McCain let us know (repeatedly) that he shared Thanksgiving with the troops  and the former Law & Order DA that he was tired of our defeatism.  Rudy and Mitt led the charge on immigration accusing each of harboring illegals and defending their own toughness.   The focus on immigration shows how important this issue has become, along with it an unmistakable xenophobic undertone.  Romney’s defense -- it was his contractors who brought illegals to the Governor’s Mansion – included reference to someone with a “funny accent”, assumably Hispanic.  I wonder how it made members of that fast growing community feel to have the way they talk characterized as “funny”?

God was a big presence at the Republican debate.  Again, CNN chose the questions but at times one would think that those on stage were competing for leadership of a church rather than a secular democracy.  Indeed, being not merely God-fearing but Christian seemed to be a core qualification for the presidency.  Do you believe in the Bible (a leather bound copy of which was put forward by the questioner)?  Then followed a series of answers that included professed belief in divine revelation, “God’s word” as Romney put it.  Mike Huckabee was fast to remind us of his special qualifications being an ordained minister and student of theology, an obvious edge for any aspiring President.  What would Jesus’ position be on the death penalty also came into play giving the former Arkansas Governor one of his now trademark laugh lines.  Among the many subtexts of the evening was the question, not asked but implied, as to whether a Mormon has the proper bone fides to steer the Christian ship of State.

Mitt Romney is considering addressing the issue of his faith much as did Jack Kennedy during his primary battle against Hubert Humphrey in 1960.  Then as now there is the question of whether their respective authoritarian churches would allow for independent governance.  Ironically both served Massachusetts (where separation is fiercely respected), each with a track record of unfettered public service.   As such, the whole religion issue is somewhat of a red herring, and a very disturbing one at that.  In the case of Romney it is particularly so because the questions raised seem to revolve around whether he is a “real” Christian.  Taken at its face value, what does that, and last night’s debate, say about potential Jewish, Moslem, Hindu or, dare I suggest, atheist candidates for public office?

The religious issue raised in JFK’s campaign was put to rest and he did become the first Roman Catholic President.  The Pope did not rule the land as had been suggested.  This year, half of the Democratic candidates are Catholics, which, in light of 1960, is good news.  Of course, none is a front-runner and Kennedy remains the only Catholic to have held the office, which may say something as well.  As to Mormons, Republicans seem to be concerned about their relationship with Christ and the New Testament neither of which should have anything to do with leadership of our democracy.  If there is any concern, it should rather be directed at the theocratic tendencies of LDS Church seen in the role it plays in Utah where the line between church and state is sometimes wafer thin.  That said, being a Mormon doesn’t seem to stand in the way of Republican Orin Hatch or Democrat Harry Reid in carrying out their duties in the US Senate.

The large shadow cast by religion on our presidential campaign, and it extends to both parties, is the legacy of the past decades of social conservative dominance.  Among the most important byproducts of the US Attorney scandal was the revelation that 150 graduates of Liberty University’s fledgling law school “committed to academic and professional excellence in the context of the Christian intellectual tradition” now serve the Bush Administration.  What we’ve seen over the last years is not so much America’s turn toward God, but a systematic effort on the part of the theocratically minded to effectually gain appointive or elective power at all levels of government.  It is an effort so chillingly detailed in Michelle Goldberg’s book, Kingdom Coming.  This past October, both Frank Rich (in his column) and David Kirkpatrick (in The Times Magazine) wrote about the waning power of, and changes in priorities for, the Evangelical movement.  Perhaps so, but the damage is done and what they have wrought won’t soon disappear.  They have left an indelible impression on our public square, one that is largely religiously exclusive.  If you want high office in America today you’d better get God on your side and don’t even consider expressing the slightest doubt that there is a God, because your candidacy will be dead on announcement.

It is this atmosphere that accounts for the display of unseemly pandering done by Republican candidates at the recent “values” conference.  It also mandated that both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama inject professions of faith into their campaigns.  It is the very same phenomenon that produced the sickening embrace of Rudy and Pat Robertson.  Mr. 9/11 Mayor now linked with the good reverend who agreed (with Jerry Falwell) that the towers had fallen as retribution of ungodly acts of abortionists, gays and the ACLU.  Pardon me, but even in writing about it, I feel compelled to go out and wash my hands.  Yes religion is front and center even seen in Rudy’s complaint, “You had a Democratic debate and not a single one of those Democratic candidates used the word Islamic terrorism.”  While the brunt of his message decried painting Islam with one brush, the continued insistence by Republicans of using terms like Islamo-Fascism is yet another symptom of this holy war, us vs. them, syndrome employing guns over there and ballots over here.

If you had any doubt about the urgent need to reassert the separation of church and state, then watch the unfolding Republican campaign and debates.  I neither question their heartfelt faith or that religion enriches their personal lives.  But don’t bring it to the office, and don’t impose it on my home.  They may claim that faith is essential to public service and to us as a nation, that it provides a moral compass.  The record doesn’t necessarily support their assertion.  The deeply religious Mitt Romney couldn’t bring himself to disavow waterboarding last night any more than could the Orthodox Jew Michael Dukasey at his confirmation hearings.  Perhaps God wants global peace and a good meal on all of our tables, but getting either will depend on us.  There is a lot to do in a world that, among others, men professing a religion they want to foist on us have mucked up.  Taking that or any religion out of the mix is an essential first step if we are to right the ship of state.  I wish one cold be optimistic that we’re on that course, but at least I haven’t lost my capacity to dream.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Rebellious Roots

Alex Haley had it right – where we come from informs who we are.  Nowhere is that root influence more evident or direct than from our parents.  I was most fortunate in that regard.  Ours was a home of nurturing, love, intellectual stimulation and, above all else, mutual respect.  We also always understood that we were different, in large measure because the father who was such a constant and immediate presence in our lives had a public persona.  At home and outside, he was a larger than life presence always dominating the room whether the nook where we breakfasted or the two thousand seat synagogue in which he preached.  No one had a greater influence in my life.  Sometime in the 1970s he began to commit his life’s story to paper. “This story”, he wrote in his introduction, “ is neither terribly exciting nor terribly boring. It will contain a great many matters which deal with my very personal and intimate life, but also with the fact that I have lived through periods of great historic importance, and at times I was permitted to play some role in them.”  He began writing his memoir late in life, a process cut short by the diminished strength of his last years.  Consequently, it only carried his story to the mid-point.  After my mother’s death, I converted the manuscript into electronic form but with scant hope that it would reach its deserved audience.   Memoirs like this are often consigned to that dustbin known as the family attic.  That could have happened here were it not for the efforts of our friend Clifford Kulwin who now occupies his former pulpit.  The result of his forwarding it to the eminent scholar Michael A. Meyer is the just published Joachim Prinz, Rebellious Rabbi, deftly edited and greatly enhanced by the historian’s insightful introduction.

Having someone tinker with your father’s words can be tricky, but from the start we were confident that Professor Meyer was absolutely the right person to undertake this project.  Like my siblings and I, he is the son of Jewish parents who escaped the horrors of Nazi Germany.  We gave him a free hand and he more than lived up to that trust.  Michael Meyer read my father’s story and, from the start, he got it.  Nothing is more symbolic of that than his choice of the title he shared with me before passing it on to the publisher.  “Rebellious”, that says it all and, in so many profound ways, it is the legacy that I cherish most.   Joachim Prinz, from his early rejection of his father’s prosaic disengaged lifestyle through the last days of his life was an unabashed rebel.  In different ways at different times he found himself entering doors of comfortable opportunity but chose always to go against the grain, to provoke rather than to sooth.  He repeatedly paid the price for being the infant terrible.  He held a series of prestigious positions – rabbi of the stodgy Berlin Jewish Community and of a large American Congregation, President of the American Jewish Congress and leader of other organizations – but he never was totally comfortable in those establishment roles.  In fact, being such an anti-organization man with no sense or stomach for the necessary political machinations, it’s remarkable that he got so far.  That he did, can be attributed only to his enormous talent and charismatic force. 

He could do just what most others could not, or at the very least do it better.  With no text before him, he could frame words, first in German and then in English, which would capture and transcend the moment.  His oratorical style moved the listener and countless numbers were drawn in just to hear the cadence of his powerful voice.  He was not in the pantheon of great scholars, but could communicate great ideas in language that even the untutored could easily understand while never courting what he often described as the “lowest common denominator”.  He respected those to whom he was most close, but equally his audience whose intelligence he consistently refused to insult.  He was, like one of his many compatriots in the struggle Martin Luther King, Jr., a man of peace.  He never picked up arms and was a proponent of “Peace Now” in Israel/Palestine long before it became fashionable.  But, like King, he was an obsessed protester who fiercely raised his voice, often risking life and limb to say what he thought was right, regardless of the circumstances.  He was by nature always suspicious of authority and never intimidated by wealth, power or position.

Joachim Prinz, Rebellious Rabbi’s pages reflect a memoir freely verbalized rather than prose carefully crafted, which is what it is.  While no doubt putting his editing pen through the draft, for the most part he dictated it to his longtime secretary Elsie Nathan.  It is nonetheless a compelling record of a moment now gone, of a history that should not be forgotten.  The times to which he referred in his introduction began in the relative calm of Germany at the turn of his Century but emerged into the nightmare of National Socialism.  It was the moment when a Jewish community (including our family) that could trace its roots back centuries found itself an outsider in its own land.  It was the period of the Second World War, when a generation of European immigrants had to find their way and carve out a productive place in a new country with a new language.  That required a rebooting and overcoming of great obstacles.  It was the time when, in the aftermath of the Holocaust, the world somewhat reluctantly, granted the survivors a new chance in their own homeland.  In all of this, he was at the center as he would be in the years that followed, most proudly when he stood with King and addressed the nation at the 1963 March on Washington or painfully when he opposed our intervention in Viet Nam.

What would this rebel think of our world?  He would, I’m convinced, be largely appalled.  The idea that his beloved United States could be in its present tarnished state would have devastated him.  Who would have thought that the home of the brave and the free, the bright beacon on the hill, could be debating torture, much less engaging in it?  Perhaps he wouldn’t be surprised at the sharp right turn taken by the American Jewish establishment including the then progressive organizations he once led, but he wouldn’t like it one bit.  Surely he would have expected peace among Arabs and Jews in a shared land, flowing with milk and honey not littered with the casualties of war and hate.  He would not be happy, but neither would he allow himself even a brief moment of self pity and defeat.  He would be on the stump, the in your face rebel reflected in the pages of his memoir.  I hope you’ll read it because his kind doesn’t come around too often, certainly not where we find ourselves today. 

Joachim Prinz, Rebellious Rabbi may be found at your bookseller or on line at Amazon and other places.  For additional information of his life and other writings check his website.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Agent of Change

Cyril de Grasse Tyson is eighty.  If so fortunate, most of us have encountered truly extraordinary human beings in our travels through life.  It doesn’t happen often and, if the encounter has any substance, the experience never leaves us.  It becomes part of who and why we are.  Cyril Tyson, whose friends simply know him as Ty, is a force of nature who came into my life in the 1960s as we both – he as its first executive director and I as one of its principal officers – gave our heart and soul to Newark’s United Community Corporation.  He was young and fresh from a stint at the groundbreaking Haryou-Act bringing his considerable experience and talents to a city in deep distress and a fledgling (the first funded under the 1994 Equal Opportunity Act) anti-poverty program that desperately needed a powerful jump start.  We bonded instantaneously and I, even younger, found in him not merely a wonderful lifelong friend but a masterful teacher.  Ty is the consummate teacher with a mind that keeps on churning 24/7 spewing profound lessons for anyone who will listen and most importantly hear.

Ty’s message has always at been consistent and constant.  It can best be characterized by the well-worn cliché that if you want to feed people don’t give them food but teach them how to plant a garden.  It was that incendiary philosophy that he brought to the UCC in those infant days of the “War on Poverty”.  He had no interest in philanthropic handouts but in building institutions of change that would empower a generation, many yet unborn, to take hold of their own lives and determine the direction of their community.  The UCC was not merely the administrator of programs, but an incubator for governance.  It was the only place where the powerless of that blighted city, albeit already a numerical majority, would be in control.  The logic of his ideas were unassailable, the execution bound to be bumpy.  Those in control – a combination of corrupt public officials, the business and religious power structure and, not inconsequentially, long entrenched black leaders – were in self-protective mode.  They knew where this grain of authentic democracy was heading.  The powerless were hungry for change and for self-determination, some of their nascent leaders already showing the promise that would one day carry them to public office.

With the now infamous riots that followed so soon afterward, some will suggest that the best we did was to stir the pot adding just another incendiary spark to the combustible dry wood that lay strewn on the streets and alleyways of Newark and other major American inner cities.  They would be wrong and principally so because Ty, unlike most of us in this instant gratification obsessed country, thinks long term.  He assuredly had no illusions about the then present state of things nor, despite his own education and sophistication, was he untouched by the extent and reach of baseless discrimination that frustrated so many of his people.  I remember him telling me of being pulled over by the Newark police who routinely harassed black men behind their wheels not for what they had done (in most cases nothing) but for who they were.  Ty wasn’t looking for overnight miracles nor, more importantly, for the ephemeral tokenism of one-off leadership.  He was demanding fundamental change and willing to wait out the unruly and often ugly process required to make it happen.

In Newark’s case it took almost four decades and a series of highly tarnished black administrations before the bright star of Cory Booker could take hold.  It may take many years more before that young mayor’s dreams morph into a modicum of reality.  But without Ty it never would have happened and, for that matter, without people like Ty who have been at the vanguard of leadership and co-agents of change, it’s unlikely that Barack Obama would stand before us as a viable Presidential candidate.  I’ve often heard actors interviewed by Charlie Rose or James Lipton talk about how significant a role luck has played in their career successes.  Perhaps, but when it comes to the affairs of state luck has nothing to do with it.  It takes vision, work and a great deal of patience.  It takes people like Ty.  They attack the job with purpose and with a doggedness that simple mortals like you and I so often lack.

Ty’s tenure in Newark was intentionally brief.  His objective was to prepare the ground and sow the seeds.  His planned departure was written into the agreement.  His succeeding career, which included high office in the Lindsay administration in New York, continued to be characterized by the same laser focus on empowerment of the disenfranchised and substantive change making.  His good friends, I among them, came to a Westchester hotel last weekend to celebrate his longevity.  The room was filled with people who have walked (or in his early years run) arm and arm with him.  His remarkable wife and three accomplished children paid tribute not merely by what they said but by who they are.  Too few Americans even know the name Cyril de Grasse Tyson, and they are poorer for it.  Many, and not merely African Americans, unknowingly are the beneficiaries of his lifelong work, advances and change that they now take for granted, see as their birthright.  In a world where we prize what was invented here, invented by us, many with Ty’s talents might resent their sense of entitlement, of unacknowledged accomplishment without struggle.  I'm certain that Ty revels in it, that he is satisfied most by what he has done not by the deserved (in my view far too limited) recognition that he has received over the years. Race remains a meaningful unresolved presence in our national room and poverty a cancer whose cure still eludes us, but the train has left the station and Ty remains one of its most distinguished drivers dragging it and us toward the destination that, however far off, lies ahead.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Inevitable is an Unwelcome Word

The Democrats took stage in Philadelphia.  It was billed as the moment when Barack Obama would take Hillary on, finally.  All the pundits are handicapping how he did.  The general conclusion, she survived.  We’re still in the horserace mode and still headed to unprecedented early primaries that will likely give birth to an extended period of two shadow governments (no incumbents in this race) and likely non-stop campaigning or perhaps worse blatant and unproductive posturing.  One only has to hope both Democrats and Republicans won’t be suffering buyer’s remorse by the time their conventions and the election comes around.  This can’t be good for the country, which is already stuck with a highly unpopular administration in limbo, holding its breath that there won’t be some last ditch act of bravado that will cause us incalculable harm.

The Republicans most recent appearance was not a debate but a trip down pandering lane at the Religious Right’s Value Voters Summit.  As pointed out by Frank Rich in last Sunday’s NY Times, it is a group whose leaders have only a faint shadow of their former influence.  Indeed, David Kirkpatrick in the same day’s Magazine section, pointed to the major upheaval within the Evangelical movement that is upending its narrow obsession with abortion and gays in favor of poverty, the environment  and, of all things, life beyond the womb.  Martin King would be pleased to hear it.  But the Republican pretenders didn’t seem tuned into these inconvenient truths.  They were hell bent on showing their true Christian colors.  Sadly that was one of the subtexts of the Values Summit – Jews, Moslems, Hindus and surely Atheists need not apply; having a Mormon present was as much of a big tent as they could muster.

There is one thing upon which both Democratic and Republicans do agree.  George Bush is a nightmare that can’t end too soon.  While the Democrats hammer away at the Bush-Cheney missteps, their opponents seem to have forgotten how to even mouth his name.  They also seem to agree, for the moment, that Hillary Clinton is the target though obviously in a very different way.  I myself still can’t warm up to her and continue to believe that, however good a campaign she has run so far, the country would be better served with someone who carries less baggage, who doesn’t find it necessary to court one and all.  I continue to fear that her underlying world view may not be sufficiently different than that of the current administration.  Her vote on Iran and its rationale speak volumes to that.  The Iraq vote, she contends after the fact, was for further negotiations not war something she repeats almost verbatim this time around, leaving one with an unmistakable and unnerving sense of deja vu.

Regardless of these misgivings, I must say that the Democrats lined up in Philadelphia (including Senator Clinton) were an attractive group.  Perhaps Denis Kucinich remains somewhat of a gadfly (UFOs and all) but there is something refreshingly pure about his straight forward position on both the war and the administration that rings true, however politically impractical it may be.  These candidates, each in their own way, represent a change in course from what we have now and any of them would probably make reasonably good Presidents, vastly better than the travesty we now endure with such pain. 

In many ways Chris Dodd and Joe Biden are the most seasoned, each with a highly commendable and thoughtful record in Congress.  That is also a weakness because their statements almost always have that “and then I wrote” quality conjuring up yesterday, past glories rather than tomorrow.  It’s the kind of experience that suggests pretty well established world views, which isn’t bad per say, but makes one sense an absence of any new and unfettered thinking.  They are excellent and smart public servants, but as Bill Clinton might say, we can do better.  Bill Richardson’s stand on the War is commendable and he is not afraid to voice specifics on the programs he supports, but with all his diplomatic skills, he was (if I remember correctly) somewhat of a go-it-alone lose cannon.

The big question everyone is asking at this point is why Barack Obama isn’t doing better?  He has raised an impressive amount of money from more people than any one else.  He draws huge crowds and his name is always on everyone’s lips.  He is smart and, unusual for a politician, a fine writer.  He delivered one of the most inspiring Keynotes ever heard at a political convention.  The last may not be a good omen – great Keynoters rarely win their party’s nomination; Mario Cuomo and Ann Richards come to mind while Albin Barkley made it only to the Vice Presidency.  If ever there was a time for a fresh face and a dramatic turn in a new direction this is it.  So what’s the problem?

It was the answer to that question that struck me watching the two-hour debate and considering the campaign thus far.  The Presidency is a unique office and the only national one.  Running for President is unlike anything else and the rhythm of a campaign vastly more complicated and demanding than running for Senator or Governor.  The question isn’t only why Obama seems to be lagging thus far, it’s equally why Ms. Clinton seems to be doing so well.  The answer in both cases is the same, and it’s not a matter of who has sufficient experience to be President, but who has been on the road more often.  This is her third national campaign and his first.  True she wasn’t the candidate the first two times around, but perhaps that in itself is an advantage.  She both participated (gave speeches and shook hands) and was able to watch; to pick up on what worked and what didn’t.  Hillary has been there, done that and it didn’t take long for her to get into a comfortable stride.  Obama, however large the audiences, is still on his learning curve.  The foreshortened schedule is definitely not to his advantage.

To prove the point we only have to look at John Edwards who arguably did somewhat better than Senator Obama in the debate.  He was more aggressive and, with Tim Russert’s help, probably got in the most telling line of the evening.  Edwards has experienced a national campaign, one in which he was a disappointing performer, but then John Kerry didn’t exactly inspire greatness.  Regardless, it has definitely given him a leg up in Philadelphia.  That said, the contrast between the ex-Senator from North Carolina and the Senator from Illinois was not that great.  In fact it suggests that Obama is doing pretty well after all, even  that he might hit his stride in the few weeks left before the holiday hibernation and the Iowa Caucus.

One of my problems with Hillary, shared by others (though perhaps not by as many voters as I would think), remains dynasty.  It’s the prospect of potentially twenty-eight (a young lifetime) years of Bush-Clinton.  Some people say that’s unfair and my fears are unfounded.  Perhaps so, but one of the things that bothers me about her campaign, something that may come back to bite her in the end, is an unmistakable sense of entitlement.  Both the candidate and her most ardent supporters see this as “her turn, her due”.  Without question she was a real trouper and loyal helpmate to Bill Clinton, putting her own career on the backburner as it were.  But in fact that may be over done.  She wasn’t, you will remember, back home in the kitchen baking cookies and she parlayed her experience into a best selling book and a Senate seat.  The nomination was Bob Dole’s due in 1996 and you remember what happened to him.  Nobody is due the Presidency.

I was (and remain) a big Clinton fan.  Days after his first election I went to the Caribbean for a vacation and was so excited about him that I pinned a campaign button onto my beach bag just to glow in the victory.  It is conventional wisdom to say he had a flawed character.  Perhaps so, but in the bright light of 24/7 news, some of his predecessors would certainly have fared no better in that regard.  The iconic FDR died with Lucy, not Eleanor, at his side and JFK…well.  Hillary is no Bill and that probably speaks in her favor, but it also reminds us of what’s missing.  There is something juicy about Bill, something almost primordially human.  When saying, “I feel your pain” we truly believe it.  Blood runs through those veins as opposed to Hillary who, while perhaps not feeding her heart with ice water, somehow lacks that natural and comforting connection.  Presidents don’t have to be warm and fuzzy puppies, but we like to think they come from our neighborhood, or at least have spent enough time there to understand who we are and what we need.

Did Hillary get knocked out last night?  No, but perhaps there was the beginning of something.  Is that wishful thinking on my part?  It may well be, but again I’m just not in the mood for replaying the best or least worst of all possible worlds.  We’re in a very big hole and old roads are unlikely to lead us out of it.  Hillary is good.  No doubt about it, but we can and we should do better even if Bill doesn’t admit to it.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007


The Santa Ana winds are fueling wild fires in California.  Draught is threatening to cripple the Southeast.  The Turkish and Iranian boarders with northern Iraq have become a tinderbox where rebel Kurds threaten to throw the only relatively tranquil area of the country into turmoil.  John McCain makes the rounds of talk shows calling for fiscal conservatism and then goes on stage to acclaim Ronald Reagan whose tax cuts and defense spending produced record deficits.  Oil, thanks both to demand and the collapse of the once almighty dollar, has hit $90 a barrel.   It turns out that we have more than twice the armed forces in Iraq than most of us realized, more than half of them hired guns.  The Republican candidates supported by the media have decided on the Democratic Nominee even though not a single ballot has been cast.  Voting machines continue to malfunction calling into question how accurate a tally we can expect in the 2008 election.  Democrats on the Hill, left largely with oversight as a tool for influence, fail to penetrate Blackwater Chief Executive Prince’s veneer of patriotism or to really expose the shadow military that he and other contractors have created with our tax dollars. 

This is but the tip of the iceberg in what appears to be a perfect storm run totally out of control.  But what of ourselves?  We, it would seem, are pretty much conducting our lives untouched by all that is going on.  We sit by happily as an irresponsible Administration aided and abetted by a compliant Congress borrow billions to finance a misguided war while we eagerly await April’s potential tax refunds.  Al Gore wins the Nobel Prize for truth telling, but most of us continue to function as if infinite resources will be at our command.  Our priority is maintaining the lifestyle we see as our entitlement.  SUV sales have come down, but only a bit.  Wal-Mart is committed to selling compact fluorescents, but most Americans hold on to the glow of incandescent light.  Perhaps worst of all, while occasionally thinking about all these things, and telling pollsters that we’re headed in the wrong direction, most of us seem more interested in avoiding inconvenient truths than confronting them.  We don’t want to upset our dinner guests with unpleasant thoughts.  We've added reality to the taboos of talking politics and religion in polite company.

It would be an inaccurate reading of history to suggest that all six million Jews could have been spared Hitler’s gas chambers.  At the same time, there is no question that large numbers, particularly of German Jews, perished because they simply refused to accept the reality of their situation.  With roots planted centuries deep, they saw the increasing compromises in their daily life and diminishment of freedom as a passing episode not inevitable disaster.  Likewise we live the illusion that “it couldn’t happen here.”  I am not suggesting that we are heading for a Holocaust, or that events unfolding before our eyes mirror those faced by my parents and their generation in Berlin of the 1930s.  But make no mistake this is a time when many of the values we take for granted and hold dear are being eroded.  Contemplate, for example, the potential of that huge and growing paramilitary run largely by right wing conservatives at the moment when they decide the country is headed in the wrong direction.

As so often happens, truth emerges more powerfully in the metaphor than in any direct expression.  This struck me as I listened again to that John McCain campaign speech on C-Span.  It’s not the straight talk (often more a slogan than a reality) that keeps McCain in the game, but his compelling life story, which he unabashedly repeats much as Rudy wraps himself in 9/11.  McCain, a third generation military man, proclaimed that we didn’t lose the Viet Nam War on the battlefield, but on the streets of American cities.  We’ve all heard that before from conservative politicians, but think for a moment about what those streets represent.  Yes, something called democracy where civilians, meaning officials elected by us, have control over the military.  To be sure, McCain would deny that he was challenging democracy, but if so he is either deaf to the underlying meaning of his words or he is disingenuous.

Tom Brokaw made a fortune in writing about what he called “the greatest generation”.  I question his premise, because there has been no single greatest generation.  Moreover, it’s hard to claim that those who fought in World War II were any more dedicated or personally courageous than those who fought in Viet Nam or are now in Iraq.  Equally so, the very idea that the conflict  he considered can be characterized as a “good war” is in itself flawed.  Wars can be necessary and fighting them can be noble, but they can never be characterized as good.  To me, the greatest generation of the twentieth century were not those who landed at Omaha beach, but those who marched on our streets in the name of righting America’s wrongs and getting us our of Viet Nam.  People were energized and people power was exercised to change the country’s course were it ending segregation or stopping an ill-conceived conflict.  It is said that our streets today are not filled because we have no draft or because lunchrooms are now integrated.  Perhaps so, but the sad fact is that most of us are simply averting our eyes and hoping it will all go away.  It won’t, and in the end we’ll have no one to blame but ourselves. 

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Stuck on the Old Road

The last thing we needed was a dispute about Florida balloting.  How quickly they forget and how shortsighted at the very moment when this critical state is in play thanks the growing disaffection of its large Hispanic community with Republicans.  Leaving aside my recently expressed position that the primary process is far too long, I am solidly with Florida on this one.  Their, and some other states, decision to move up primaries is not an expression of revolt, but raises an appropriate question as to whether the Iowa/New Hampshire axis still makes sense in the 21st Century.  Looking at the reaction of the DCC, one would think that the order of primaries was written into the Constitution, which of course it is not.  Perhaps the idea of giving small states a fair chance at influencing legislation embodied in the creation of the Senate makes sense, but the idea that these small states should play an inordinately disproportional role in selecting party nominees in the digital age is anachronistic at best.  We’re inexplicably stuck on the old road.  If you really want to level the playing field, abolish the Electoral College and make the votes of individual citizens truly equal, regardless of where they live.  One person, one equal vote.

Of course, I don’t understand why the Florida thing is even an issue worth discussing.  We have already been informed that the November ’08 will be the equivalent of a subway series – Mr. 9/11 vs. Ms. Dynasty.  This seems to have particular allure to the girls and boys on the press bus and on talk shows.  Has anyone noticed what happened to the Mets in the run-up to the off-season or what seems to be happening to the Yankees at this writing?  The former seemed so certain to be winners this year and the latter are assumed champions by Divine right.  Really?  While you’d never know it from much of the coverage, the Presidential election is not a ball game, or a game at all.  What unnerves me about the prospect of a Rudy-Hillary match-up is that it so totally out of sync with the notion that the country is desperate for change, most especially when it comes to Iraq.  The Republican (who justifies Judith’s curious cell phone calls as a necessary post-9/11 “keeping in touch”) was, is, and will be a hawk.  The Democrat was, claims she isn’t now but remains, I would suggest, hawkish to the core.  Her recent vote to declare Iran’s army a terrorist organization, an unprecedented and highly provocative move, only speaks to that proposition.  Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying Rudy and Hillary are one and the same or that, given such a choice, I wouldn’t pull the lever for the Senator in a heartbeat.  It’s just that the end result may more or less keep us stuck on the old road when we can least afford it.

In the midst of the silly Florida debacle and talk of inevitable nominees, John Murtha and two Congressional colleagues floated a provocative and sensible idea for funding the War.  It was an effectual calling of the cards in the Poker game being played by a fiddling Washington in the face of a world on fire.  What they proposed was a defined and temporary tax levy, a pay as you go plan of fiscal responsibility.  They were, of course, immediately branded “tax and spend” Democrats in what Republicans saw as a great public relations coup.  It was an old and predictable song, but not nearly as painful as the spineless reaction of the Democratic leadership that immediately distanced itself, dismissing it out-of-hand as a legitimate idea for discussion.  What a pity and what a loss of opportunity to have a mature discussion in a city that seems mired in it childish ways.  Consider for a moment what might have been if the vote authorizing this disastrous and unnecessary war would have mandated accompanying enabling taxes?  States with balanced budget requirements face exactly that prospect when authorizing extraordinary expenditures.  But we’re not discussing the Murtha proposal because we’re stuck on the old road.

It is equally disturbing and frustrating that Democrats remain so inept at responding to such Republican charges and the misleading slogans that accompany them.  The question that should have been asked in retort is, what is so bad about “tax and spend”?  Is it not an appropriate and prudent way to approach fiscal matters?  Is it not vastly better and more responsible than the Republican way that can only be described as “borrow and spend”.  Their way now, and during the hallowed Reagan years, has led to historically high huge deficits.  What’s even worse this time around is that it has made us beholden to, of all things, China, as our ultimate banker?  I guess that beats “the Red menace” but doesn’t it also suggest (the relationship not borrowing) the importance of not remaining stuck on old roads? The Republican idea is to cut taxes and then to spend like drunken sailors while shamelessly promoting the myth that the Democrats are the irresponsible lot.  The Democrats idea is to sit back and let themselves be defined, even by the big lie.  Guess who wins that round; guess whose stuck on the old road?

This may well be the election year that even we can’t screw it up.  But wining is not enough.  It has to be the year that leads to substantive and measurable change.  Some will suggest that we’re stuck in Iraq no matter who wins.  I don’t discount that extricating ourselves may take longer than Governor Richardson glibly suggests, but leave we must, sooner rather than later.  In that regard the candidates' records and their underlying intent become critical.  We need someone who tells us how we can move ahead, not why we’re stuck on the old road.  The next President will be confronted by a reputation deficit that pales the economic one in comparison.  A real change in policy and attitude is our only hope to recoup some of our losses, hopefully a substantial portion of them.  History moves on, all the more rapidly so in this nanosecond world.  We’re unlikely to find ourselves in an exclusive "club of one" ever again and this may well not end up as our century.  That doesn’t mean we’re without options or opportunities.  The good old days, such as they were, are gone.  But it seems to me that something better than what we have now may still be in our reach.  Only tomorrow’s leadership in the drivers seat can accomplish that.  Conventional wisdom suggests, to the contrary, that experience is required, but I fear it will too easily rely on the tried and no longer true.  We dare not simply retrace the old roads that essentially lead to some dead end.  Our kids deserve and demand much more than that.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Letter to the World's "Baptists"

I was thinking again about the sermonic peroration of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s UN speech during a run yesterday morning on one of Chapel Hill’s lovely trails.  Realizing it was October 1st, the day on which it was sent in 1801, the letter from a newly elected Thomas Jefferson addressed to the Danbury Baptists came to mind.  Jefferson’s words have had a profound impact on our country, standing as the definitive interpretation of the First Amendment.  “Believing with you that religion is a matter that lies solely between man and his God,” Jefferson wrote, “that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof’, thus building a wall of separation between church and state.”  With these two things in mind, I was struck by our own and the Iranian President's similarities.  To be sure George W. Bush’s words are tempered by Jefferson’s admonition, but he, like Ahmadinejad, sees his mission coming from God.  While I disagree with both of them on this account, I don’t doubt that either man's belief is heartfelt.  They truly feel they are carrying out God’s will, but which God is that?  And that’s the very question implicit in crafting the Constitution’s insightful line of demarkation, so clearly articulated by our third Chief Executive.

This similarity in outlook, while surely different in ideological content, is characteristic of a world in which it can be argued that religion too often manifests itself as part of the problem and not of the solution.  Going into battle with “God’s blessing”, which clearly is nothing new, virtually mandates a conflict of absolutes and is the inevitable mother of the intractable.  If you really believe that you’re executing God’s will, the perfect and infallible God, then there can be no room for compromise.  It’s a matter of right and wrong.  You or I may have a personal or even collective point of view on this subject or that, but so long as we see ourselves as its source, we are amenable to change.  We may not like giving in or worse being bested in argument by others, but the stakes remain relatively low.  All that changes with God in the mix, because while we are fallible, God is not, certainly not if he is God.  So giving ground means questioning not merely the Ultimate but one’s own faith.  That can’t happen.  It is for precisely that reason that mixing religion and affairs of state is so poisonous and why, however ironic, it makes peacemaking virtually, if not totally, impossible.

What we need today are not sermons at the United Nations or invocations of God’s blessing on our actions, but a forceful letter the world’s “Baptists”.  That may be a quixotic idea, but I really think that much more important than fighting some mythical “War on Terrorism”, we should be focused on removing religion from our conflicts on all sides.  That may not be as unrealistic as it sounds because this imputed religious content is essentially born our of human manipulation, the selective reading of one scripture or another to meet purely self-serving human objectives – as true for Bush as it is for Ahmadinejad.  We’re in Iraq for many reasons, most (and probably all) of them wrong, but the one thing I’m confident didn’t bring us to Baghdad was God.  No I don’t presume to know God’s will better than George Bush does, I simply know that, (assuming God exists), neither of us is in a position to really know it.  The same can be said about a Jihad whether declared by Osama bin Laden or anyone else.  All of these are smokescreens purposefully raised by powerful humans because the reputed work of God brooks no questioning.

If the world is to have any hope for peace, we must collectively erect a wall of separation between our individual religious beliefs and how we interact with one another.  Erecting such a wall suggests no lessening of religion itself or of fervent religious belief; it simply puts religion where it belongs as Jefferson said, something “solely between man and his God”.  His (or her, Mr. Jefferson) God is not necessarily your God or mine, which is the point.  Conflict is between people, and to the best of our knowledge, God has nothing to do with it unless the all-knowing is in the habit of regularly changing sides.  Does God (assuming he’s on our side) support Saddam and the Taliban one day and oppose them the next?  Perhaps this separation will (or can) never happen, but think about its implications for a moment and you’ll come to realize that it may well be the last real hope for humankind.  When Gandhi led the fight against the British his greatest disappointment was the resulting split of the sub-continent along religious lines, leading to a volatile divisiveness that remains until this day.  Much of the intractable dispute between Israel and the Palestinians is equally informed by religiously based “territorial rights”.  None of these serve peace; all bode ill for the future.

Perhaps a letter to the world’s “Baptists” is an unlikely dream.  I fear that to be the case since too many people are vested in the conflicts that use religion as their rallying flag.  But looking at the result, perhaps, as our own Supreme Court embarks upon another term exactly 206 years later to the day, we would all do well to pull out Jefferson’s letter.  The separation of Church and State has been under systematic attack since religious fundamentalists began to influence not merely Republican politics but the country’s conversation.  In pleading for separation, many liberals and even a good number of conservatives, hold fast to the Jeffersonian ideas principally to protect specifics like a woman’s right of reproductive choice or keeping “Intelligent Design” out of the public schools.  I agree with them, vigorously so.  But there is something much more ominous at stake.  When religion and governance mix, violent conflict seems to follow.  That could be the greatest threat to homeland security.   I truly believe that the tranquility of the nation hangs in the balance when we tinker with this basic First Amendment principle.  The record is clear in that regard.  It would be good to send a letter to the world’s “Baptists”, but at the very least we should urgently send one to ourselves.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

On a Visit to New York

I’m just back from a week in New York.  The city is as vibrant as ever, as hectic as ever – both exciting and a bit exhausting.  It will always remain something of home for me.  There was particular excitement this time around with the goings on at the United Nations (visible from the lovely apartment on the East River where I stay).  I remember this period of street closings and motorcades well from the years when my office was nearby on 49th Street. New Yorkers are always relieved when it’s all over much as the year round residents of a resort town are happy to see vacationers go back to where they belong.  Of course, unlike the off-season hibernation in those places, this city will only be a tad quieter, if that.

There is a sameness about the opening session of the UN, marked each year by a perceptible of-the-moment atmosphere.  At its center, is some star player enjoying a transient spotlight reminiscent of Warhol’s fifteen minutes of fame. One would think the whole world revolved around him (it’s always a him) and his particular cause, though much of the hoopla is driven by American perceptions and hype.  All eyes are transfixed on the current anti-hero, if not nemesis, whose importance is often overstated.  There was the year that a young and brash Fidel came to town hanging his hat symbolically in a Harlem hotel, or the time Arafat appeared on the podium “packing”.  This year’s headliner of course was Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who devoted half his assembly speech to belligerent defiance and the other to what can only be described as a religious sermon.  In their time each of these stars put on quite a show.  One wonders what next year’s attraction will be?  In all of this the “great powers” are generally eclipsed, most notably this year was George Bush.  The President, who both we and the world seem to have written off at this point, came “speakin” (the letter “g” apparently was neither in the Yale or Harvard curriculum), but no one seemed to be “listenin”.  For sure, he too had his moment but, despite the retained enormous power of his office, it has passed.

We helped found the UN so that people could talk to each other instead of shooting at each other; a commendable but unrequited dream.  Perhaps more important than the talking, is that it is a forum designed for listening.  In that, it’s been a total failure.  None of us, it turns out, are very good listeners.  More to the point, we’ll do everything possible to evade hearing anything but our own truth.  In that spirit, the US delegation childishly (assumably in the name of making a statement) absented itself during both Ahmadinejad’s talk and, even more comically, that of the Cuban Foreign Minister.  I guess they never heard the adage, “sticks and…but words will never hurt you”.  Such walkouts are sadly not uncommon at the UN, but they are especially disturbing when done by a country that prides itself on free speech.  The walkout presented yet another metaphor for an administration that hasn’t confronted a potential negotiation that it likes and has fashioned a foreign policy more appropriate to Dodge than for our complex world.  We’re all paying the price and probably will be for years, if not decades, to come.

Speaking of free speech, the big story in New York was the Iranian President’s appearance at Columbia University.  Opinions pro and con ran red hot with opponents protesting giving a platform to a rabid dictator and unabashed anti-Semite.  Much as I disdain this despicable character, free discourse is central to the spirit of the academy and, as such, Columbia made the right decision.   Interestingly, it turned into another example of our need to talk rather than to listen.  President Lee Bollinger’s lengthy and gratuitous “introduction” reminded me of a Congressional hearing where elected officials are more eager to hear themselves pontificate than to illicit information from witnesses.  Bollinger, of course was covering his rear end, probably thinking more about contributors than free speech.  Since he gets credit for going ahead with the controversial program (which no other institution did), I guess we should cut him some slack. In the end, Ahmadinejad’s talk was predictable and, we should all be relieved that the student body survived it unscathed.  Did his appearances in New York strengthen him at home?  Perhaps so, but so did we gain by reminding the world, not to mention ourselves, that this is a free country where even bad speech reflects on the speaker and a willingness to listen on the self confidence of the listener.  In the era of Abu Ghraib and threats of invasion on privacy, we seem to have forgotten this and, in doing so, to have lost our moral footing.    

If you really want to get a glimpse of what’s going on in American these days, descend into the bowls of the New York Subway system.  The American heartland reflected down under where trains are called 1, 4, A or R?  Yes it is, even if seemingly an unlikely spot.  Now there are differences of course.  What’s striking about people in the Big Apple is that they all seem to be moving ahead with an earnestness that you don’t see in all other places, and often with their heads down rather than straight ahead.  Averting one’s eyes seems more appropriate in the Subway than meeting those of others, as if that may give some unwanted signal.  But don’t be fooled by this surface-deep difference between city and country folk.

Down under, things are moving along as usual (in this case somewhat noisily).  With people of every imaginable color and background (an encapsulated America) headed intently toward their chosen or mandated destination, the theatrics above ground are not part of their reality.  Passengers stand or sit (if so fortunate) caught up in their own private worlds, many tethered to iPods, some reading the paper or a book and others silently waiting for the train to reach their destination.  To be sure, the headlines in the papers some hold shout the news of the day, and some, perhaps many, have even strong opinions about the events at the UN and other places.  But the main picture was of people whose routines were undeterred by anything that was happening on the “street” above.  Perhaps they were disturbed by the day’s news, the war, or the state of the nation, but more in an abstract context than by how it practically touched their lives.  Without question, some on that subway may have lost their jobs because of a faltering economy and perhaps there were those who had lost someone in Iraq (though the likelihood of that was even smaller), but by and large whatever was happening upstairs was absent as the train rattled through the endless tunnels of Manhattan and into the Boroughs.

Americans, myself included, remain untouched by the events of the day.  That’s true for New Yorkers and its true for people on the back roads of Indiana, Main or Arizona.  Perhaps we’re mounting up debt that one day will have to be repaid, but isn’t that just the normal American way?  New York is bigger than life, but scratch the surface and it’s anywhere, anyone.  That’s what struck me on this visit and it was a startling reality check.  It doesn’t bode well for any of our futures.  Keeping us on track with our own lives and seemingly untouched by the real world is exactly where our leaders want us to be, and even today’s aspirants for the Presidency don’t seem ready to change that.  When people become engaged, who knows what will happen?  My take is that engagement better happen soon or we’ll be cooked.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Endless and Outmoded

Do you sometimes hear people talk and think to yourself, right topic wrong conversation.  That’s how I’ve been feeling in hearing various states assert their right to move primary dates up, threatening in fact to have them begin before this pre-election year ends.  No, it’s not that I come in defense of Iowa or New Hampshire, but rather against the current primary calendar altogether.  And no, it’s not a matter of who comes first and why, but that I think all the primaries are far too early.  Even if the current calendar stands, we will already have been suffering the presidential campaign too long.  I don’t use the world “suffering” lightly.  Some people say that no one really pays attention until after Labor Day (the year before the vote).  Perhaps they don’t, but even that is ridiculously early.  More than a year before the election, we have had two fields of candidates out on the hustings telling all who might listen why they would be the best choice for our next leader.  Does that make any sense?  I think not.

Let’s start with something practical.   There are nineteen candidates in the race today of which ten (more than half) hold public office.  Six senators, three House members and one governor are working only part time at their taxpayer paid job.  On the Democratic side, two of the three alleged leading candidates sit in the Senate, representing very large states.  Isn’t it fair to ask, if the constituencies represented by them and all the other public employees are getting a fair return on their dollar, not to mention adequate representation?  Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think only private citizens should run for President.  The fact is that those holding public office, especially high public office are often the most qualified.  But it is undeniable that their run impacts on their regular job and also that everything they do or say when “at work” is colored by their candidacy.  That was evident when Presidential candidates sat on the committees hearing testimony from General Petraeus.  Not only did they ask few questions, giving their limited time to making statements, but every word said was measured, utterances I’d call “candidate-speak” not officeholder-speak.  It both put a burden on them and robbed us of what these highly experienced and smart people might have gotten out of the general and his ambassador sidekick.

But here is something even more troubling.  It is now suggested that we may know the nominees of both parties as early as February.  In that context, it is conceivable that from then until the fall elections – eight months – we will see two Presidential candidates on the Senate floor, though don’t count on much attendance.  How much do you think will get done with that dynamic?  But that isn’t really the problem.  We are living in fast moving times in which the dynamic of governance can change from one moment to the next.  At present, encumbered by a system of government established by the founders in the eighteenth century, we have no way of replacing our leadership even in times when it has totally lost the confidence of a large majority of voters.  We could impeach them, but that is a purposefully cumbersome process that works only when the President is a crook, not when he is the author of wrongheaded, even disastrous, policy.  Think about this.  Not only can’t we replace the President when times call for different leadership, we will be locked into Presidential candidates in much the same way.  That puts us at a double disadvantage.

The wrong conversation?  Yes, and here is what I think we should be talking about.  First, primaries should take place in June, about four months before the election.  Second, no candidate should be allowed to announce or begin campaigning before January 1st of the same year, six months before the first primary.  That may sound radical, but I think it would potentially increase both voter interest and participation.  Election fatigue is less likely to set in.  To be sure, the idea of drawn out campaigns (and they were never this long then) was to afford candidates the opportunity of introducing themselves to the electorate.  John McCain’s symbolic bus tour notwithstanding, we have long passed the day of the whistle stop and, one could argue even the now seemingly primitive reach of network TV.  The Internet puts it all out before us and the candidates themselves can have unlimited time to speak their minds whether with written word or video – in real time if they wish.  If Americans who never heard of her can become acquainted with Paris Hilton in a matter of days, they should be able to get a handle on Presidential candidates in six to nine months.

The system I am proposing would give potential candidates more time to think about whether they really want to run and us a longer time to see them (especially those in office) perform their present duties less encumbered by needing to stay on campagin message.  It would also be an important financial reform because campaign costs (especially for staff and travel) would be greatly reduced.  That in itself has the potential of putting all the candidates on a more level playing field.  Financial reform needs to go a lot further, but it’s a start.  Moreover, when you make a dramatic change like restricting a campaign’s duration, you begin to look at the whole process.

One final thing.  I’m a little tired (an understatement) of voting for the lesser of two evils or for some decent person who doesn’t really excite me.  I’m definitely not alone in that.  I have nightmares about us virtually nominating her or him in February only to discover that another her or him would have been a better more compelling choice for where we are rather than where we might be nine months later.  We’ve had the wrong him in place for way too long now and can ill afford another mistake like that, a mistake for which, in one way or another, we are all responsible.  The current system did its part and its damage in that as well.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Staying on Course

The Decider has spoken; the dynamic David and Ryan duo have completed their support roles and are exiting stage right on their way back to Baghdad.  The nation should be pleased.  “…conditions in Iraq are improving…we are seizing the initiative from the enemy…the troop surge is working.”  Victory is both essential and, as exemplified by Anbar province, close at hand.   How could that not be the case given the involvement of 36 nation’s troops on the ground?  Now there is some news.  Silly me, I thought out daughters and sons (with a little help from the fast withdrawing British) were duking it out with “al Qaeda Iraq” (ostensibly the only combatant foe we face) all by themselves.  The mission will, after all, be accomplished, albeit by another administration.  Perhaps that was the most important message George Bush had for us on Thursday evening.  This boiling hot potato will be handed over to his successor, handed over, let’s be clear, in a condition and at a troop level of his choosing.  Sure the Congressional defeatists can debate, sure the public can say it wants out, but the Decider will decide.  The pundits are saying Bush won this round and in some profound sense they are absolutely right.  Bush wins because he is the Decider and, whatever we may think of him, history, he believes, is on his side.

The biggest losers in all this are his beloved fellow Republicans, left hanging out to dry.  If the Democrats find themselves unable to muster enough votes to abort the “new strategy” or impede the “way forward”, the Republicans are stuck with Bush’s war.  He has made it difficult for them to take off on their own in any meaningful way, even if that is where they want to go, which is by no means apparent.  All of the GOP Presidential hopefuls, to one degree or another, support that way forward.  Even when they admit to missteps, none of them have strayed far from the reservation.  They were for the war at the start and remain so.  To be sure, John McCain is out front betting the ranch on his support, but his position is a distinction without a fundamental difference.  Rudy 911, Mitt of the sacrificing sons and Big Fred are all right there.  John Warner, who seemingly liberated himself by announcing his retirement, will ultimately remain among the good sheep.  After all, he asked for a token 5,000-troop reduction by Christmas and he got it.  Finding themselves in the most excruciating place are the “moderates” who are up for re-election, the real ones like Susan Collins and the opportunistic (read that desperate) like Norm Coleman.  They are at the President’s mercy and most importantly at the mercy of the Sheik’s in Anbar.

If John McCain has bet the ranch on the War, the Administration and its supporters are putting all their eggs on the basket of Anbar.  That in itself is a bit of (perhaps transparent) irony.  Bush had us invade Iraq to topple a minority Sunni dictatorship that had suppressed the Shiite majority for years.  The Iraqis that we were asking to stand up so that we could stand down were largely that oppressed minority.  Democracy was the answer and sure enough Shiites “kicked ass” (the President’s expression, not mine) at the polls.  But wait a minute.  Aren’t the Iranians Shiites?  Oh, that’s a problem.  So here we are pouring money, weaponry and our hopes into the Sunnis of Anbar.  It’s all so confusing, better get Condi and Henry in to straighten things out.  No need, we have David, I mean David Petraeus, to tell us what to do.  Whatever happens, if Anbar turns sour, we’re screwed, though I’m sure there will be a way of calling that progress as well.

In the end the Democrats will probably emerge victorious from this process, but it won’t be pretty.  They too are in a difficult place.  Harry and Nancy can talk tough but their options are very limited.  With the Republicans locked into a policy they may not like but can’t oppose, the (slim) majority has but one untenable option.  It can cut off funds, but it really can’t.  Some think that it may be possible to attach strings to funding, but absent Republican support, even that is likely to be but a short term gesture.  So far they have also been unable to present a coherent plan of their own, though Barak Obama and John Edwards are taking a stab at it.  The fact is that an alternative plan and the need for one is something of a red herring.  Plans, even longer-term plans, have to be based on what is when they are put into place and no one knows what will be on January 20, 2009.  So it comes down to positioning and that’s a delicate challenge.  Interestingly, Hilary Clinton, who has been so effective at portraying herself as a tough leader, may be the most disadvantaged in this game.  Her early support for the War was heartfelt and her calls for its end are labored.  The fact that she won’t admit having been wrong (though that’s truly Presidential) will continue to haunt her.  John Edwards, on the other hand, seems best positioned.  He has recanted his support and can now freely oppose with the luxury of not having to vote on a funding cut off, a distinct advantage.  What will really be interesting is what Barack Obama does.  The debate is the easy part, but will he be willing to take the risk of saying no to funding?  In a world where straight talk has even been eliminated from John McCain’s bus, I don’t envy his political choice. 

George Bush, knowing his time is running out, is relying on history.  For the moment he revels in being the Decider, perhaps even more than being right.  I don’t think history will be kind.  It really doesn’t matter because, at the moment we’re stuck, and stuck in a very bad place.  We may be “mad as hell” but we will have to continue taking it.  Our real world won’t stop and we can’t get off.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Saigon and Baghdad

“…We await the report of General Westmorland – oops I meant General Petraeus.”  That’s the way I ended my last post.  With an unmistakable sense of déjà vu, I simply couldn’t help myself.  Indeed, Westmorland’s name came up several times during the questioning on the Hill.  Even George Bush, who assiduously avoided linking the two wars for five years, broke that resolve in August citing the "unmistakable legacy of Vietnam” in warning against withdrawal from Iraq.  And of course the opposite of what he suggested is exactly the point, and his logic is exactly what binds these two wars together.

In both those Cold War days and now a central argument for “staying the course” hinged on the domino theory first promulgated in the 1950’s by President Dwight Eisenhower.  It was a time when Communism was seen as cancerous ideology, a threat to our way of life with almost mystical powers.  Our opposition to it became often obsessive in almost the same way as we today look at militant Islamism.  In the earlier period, which proponents of our current policies hope we will forget, the “Red menace”, and the threat it posed, reached a crescendo during which individual privacy and rights were threatened.  People in those days were tarred simply by their association with assumed “lefties” and “Commies”.  So today potentially are associations or interactions with Moslems (many of them US citizens), seen by some as cavorting with our “Islamofacists” enemies.  Indeed, while paying lip service to the difference between facing a sovereign foe and a stateless one, both the descriptive language and purported threat is virtually identical.  Communism was seen as a mortal danger to our culture and lives as we knew them, and so too are today’s radical Islamists.

The fact remains, that despite the President’s analogy, our departure from Viet Nam did not lead to the fall of Asia (China was already in place) to Communism and indeed one could argue that it led to the beginning of a global decline culminating in the implosion of the Soviet Union and the emergence of a Free Market China, now our principal creditor.  Was there a period of continued turmoil after the fall of Saigon?  Of course there was but, from a historic perspective, a short one.  Will there be substantial turmoil if we leave Baghdad and Iraq?  Absolutely, but despite dire predictions to the contrary, there is no reason to believe it will be any worse or any more long lasting than what we witnessed in the aftermath of our exit from Saigon and Viet Nam. 

Interestingly enough one of the key elements of “success” reported by General Petraeus was that local tribesmen in Anbar rejected Al Qaeda whose extreme ways did not sit well with Iraqis who have long lived under secular rule.  What makes anyone think that Iraqis in other places won’t come to the same conclusion?  So, too, is the argument that when we leave Iran will step in anything but self evident.  Even Ambassador Crocker, a long term Mid-East expert, pointed out that Iraqis have no special love for Iran with whom they had a bitter war and whose culture they don’t share, Shiite or not.  If our leaving is perceived as a defeat, we have only a misguided policy to thank.  Even so, let’s remember that in the aftermath of a terrible (some would say much worse) “defeat” in Viet Nam, we ultimately emerged as the world’s preeminent and sole Super Power.  If that status has been threatened, going into Iraq will undoubtedly be judged as the cause not leaving it.

There is of course one very significant difference between Saigon and Baghdad.  The draft.  We had it then and we don’t today.  With a theoretically limitless pool of fighting personnel the numbers of troops committed in Viet Nam reached more than half a million; they have generally been sustained at 130,000 (higher during the so-called “surge”) constrained by an all volunteer military.  That difference explains why the protests against the Viet Nam War consistently drew thousands and were so bitter and why today’s have been so poorly attended and lackluster in contrast.  Not a single American was untouched by Viet Nam.  Whether faced with their own draft or that of a family member or that everyone knew a combatant and many experienced a loss,that war was personal in the most direct sense.  As has been pointed out by many thoughtful people, we are (aside from seeing things play out on TV from which we can opt out with our remotes) largely untouched.  We continue shopping, playing and staying our own personal courses.  National sacrifices in these two wars just don’t match up.

In the end what makes Iraq different from Viet Nam may be exactly what hastens our exit.  Without a draft (which seems highly unlikely), supply and demand will simply take over, perhaps sooner rather than later.  We have already been told that the surge can’t be sustained beyond the Spring, and that is probably only the beginning.  The hearings which we have listened to in the last two days take me back to General Westmorland and the endless “progress” reports that came out of Washington during the Johnson and Nixon years.  What Senator Inhofe of Oklahoma (who still clings to a 9/11 connection) characterized as the “great successes” during his turn at the Senate hearing is in fact demonstrably spotty and selective, at best wishful thinking.  The dissembling continues (we still have to hear from the Decider), but the end seems inevitable.  Saigon and Baghdad will ultimately merge into a single experience.  Chances are, global warming will do us in earlier than the fall out from our assured exit from this quagmire.

Friday, September 7, 2007

We the Greatest

Muhammad Ali, as agile with words as with his fists, loved to proclaim, “I am the greatest”.  He saw himself the preeminent boxer of his day, which he was.  Even so, you always felt “the greatest” claim was made with a modicum of tongue in cheek, something that made his bragging all the more appealing.  There is little doubt that we live in a pretty extraordinary country from which most of us benefit both individually and collectively.  So why is it when I hear people, most especially our leaders, proclaim, “We are the greatest”, that I cringe?  Perhaps it’s because, unlike the Champ, they do so with unequivocal seriousness, not as a metaphor but an unquestionable truth.  Perhaps, these self-claims bother me because they bespeak not so much pride in country as a lack of national humility, which by implication suggests other nations are inferior. 

Ali’s claim of being the greatest was credible because it was backed up by performance, but perhaps even more so because it was widely recognized by others including his own peers.  But who is to really say which of anything, much less a country or a group is the greatest?  At the very least one would want some outside confirmation.  It’s not merely how we perceive ourselves, but also how others see us.  At one time, an America “the greatest” claim probably resonated across the globe, albeit at times grudgingly.  Today, in the aftermath of the Bush era’s disastrous unilateral (with the acquiescence of “the willing”) foreign policy, much of that acknowledgment and good will has dissipated.  That’s exactly what came to mind as I watched four young international journalists weigh in on America’s standing at a C-Span recorded “Hearts and Minds” symposium.  They came from Egypt, Bangladesh, Kenya and Brazil and each had spent six months here working as a Friendly Fellows at different newspapers across the country.  Their home country’s relations with ours varied, but their message was uniform, expressed best by the Egyptian “we don’t hate you but we hate you”.  That is to say that they admire much about our culture and our people, but are totally alienated by the current administration and policies.  The Moslems among them feel we paint their faith with a single simplistic and negative brush.   The Brazilian blames us for supporting her country’s former dictator and treating Brazil as some kind of geographic appendage. 

The greatest is implies an America-centric view of the world.  The downside of such thinking was expressed most tellingly by an anecdote told by Kenyan journalist Mugomo Munene.  When terrorists bombed the US embassy in Nairobi, a few blocks from where he sat in a cafe, all Kenyans were horrified and in our corner.  Then came the CNN et al news coverage reporting that “15 Americans and 225 other people died”.   We are so used to such an American media bias that we take no notice, but the Kenyans did and it instantaneously reversed their attitude toward both the event and us.  Why didn’t that report, they asked themselves, say 240 people died, among them 15 Americans?  It seems like a nuanced difference, but it’s huge.  The message it conveyed was that 15 American lives counted more than those 225 of their own citizens.  When you’re the greatest, you come first, everyone else is an afterthought.  Collateral damage.  Multiply that story and that attitude thousands of times and you’ll understand what’s happened to our standing in the world; in fairness, a process that didn't just begin in the Bush years.  Incorporate it into our foreign policy and presto, our current state.  The greatest is transformed from credible claim to a hollow brag.

To me the claim of being the greatest is emblematic of an attitude that now pervades not only the United States but also the entire world.  In one way or another we all either say or think that our way is the only right way, it’s the greatest.  The Islamists make that claim but so do Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Atheists and everyone else, even if they don’t admit to it, or do it unconsciously.  Collectively, we have taken on a kind of self-assured arrogance of self-proclaimed greatness that at best diminishes or eliminates any kind of legitimate dialogue and at worst is killing us.  The idea that we are the greatest ultimately undermines us morally and threatens our security.  Until we change our mindset, we seem destined to leave our children a world of such hot violence that global warming will seem like an irrelevant afterthought.

With regard to America’s claim of being the greatest, there is at least a sliver of hope.  Those young correspondents reflected what many of us have heard from other quarters.  We don’t hate America; we hate its policies and especially those currently in power.  That leaves a huge burden on the desk of the next President, whoever she or he may be.  There is the possibility of turning things around, which will take not merely words (thought they too are important) but also deeds.  The world will be watching and so should each of us.  If we blow this opportunity, people around the world my start hating Americans and not only their government.  That will be our fault.

In the meantime, we the greatest await the report of General Westmorland – oops I meant General Petraeus.