Sunday, January 28, 2007

The Games have Begun

Among the inevitable byproducts of a move and packing up nearly 40 years of accumulated possessions are the unexpected discoveries, some long forgotten possessions.  In my case, one of these was a note sized envelope addressed to a Mr. Jonathan Prinz of South 11th Street in Newark New Jersey with a return address "Executive Mansion Springfield Illinois".  Inside was a two sentence note thanking Mr. Prinz for "your understanding message" and signed Adlai E. Stevenson.  It proved two things: even a reluctant hoarder like me does keep some stuff and how long I have been a political junkie - the "Mr." Prinz was barely into High School in 1952.

It was no accident that I wrote a letter of post election condolences to the defeated Stevenson.  He was an extraordinary candidate who engendered strong intellectual and emotional support.  His speeches remain among the most memorable of American political history.  He was also seeking to succeed a President of his own party who, due in large measure to a discredited war in Korea, had sunk low in the polls.  In that context, the quality of the man or the poetry of his words was irrelevant.  The country wanted a change and they really did like Ike.  A beleaguered President presiding over an unpopular war is unlikely to be succeeded by the standard bearer of his party no matter who it may be.  That was true in 1952 and in 1968.  It will most probably be true in 2008.  In the first cases it was who the Republicans put forward that counted in those years and today it matters greatly who Democrats chose.  Without discounting electabilty - history is not absolutely destined to repeat itself and candidates can lose elections they are expected to win - the chances are that the nominee will be taking the oath in January  2009.

It's been more than two months since the Congressional election and nearly a month since power shifted on the Hill.  Remarkably, despite paying tepid lip service to bipartisanship and his acknowledgement of some power change at the beginning of his State of the Union - it would have been impossible to overlook the presence of Madam Speaker - George Bush, albeit somewhat subdued on that night, pretty much stayed the course.   Apparently reenergized in introducing David H. Petraeus a few days later, he reminded all who had any doubt that it was he (not Congress) who was "the decision maker".  I guess the "new" course boils down to words in this case his abandonment of the old "I'm the decider", formulation that made for such good talking head and Comedy Central copy.  There is something petulant in this proclamation, even childish protestation that in no way resembles Harry Truman's very grown up "the buck stops here."  It may also portend why Bush may not be treated as kindly by history as has been the man from Missouri.  In the wake of "changes" being undertaken in the Administration that, true to form, Washington wags were beginning to question the relationship between Bush and Cheney who some of the pundits would suggest has finally been marginalized.   Don't believe it.  There was an unmistakable symmetry between Bush's "decision maker" remarks and Dick Cheney's aggressive interview with Wolf Blitzer, also last week.  I'd say they remain on the same, totally out of touch, page and we should not be sanguine about it.

To distract us from the reality of two more years and the enormous power of a President indeed to make both bad and good decisions till his last moment in the oval office, the '08 campaign has moved into full swing.  I guess we should be pleased that there seems to be such a rich bench on the Democratic side.  That said and without questioning their quality as individuals, a large number of the contenders are on a vanity trip as they ask "why not me" and hope we will respond, "indeed why not?"  But we all know that only a few will remain standing and each faces a considerable challenge before uttering those fateful words, "I accept your nomination".

John Edward has been on the road almost nonstop since he and John Kerry lost the election on '06.  He remains a very attractive candidate with a commanding stage presence out on the stump.   Of course, without diminishing his talents that strength was in comparison to the wooden John Kerry.  He won't be as lucky when compared to the charismatic Barack Obama.  Edwards has disowned his early stand on the war and done so without the caveats of others in and out of the race.  That should help him, but the news down here in Orange County may not. Edwards and family, it was reported this week, is completing construction of a new home, a $6 Million place on more than 100 acres.  Now while that's serious money to put into lodgings, it wouldn't get much attention in New York or Los Angeles.  But the new Edwards home will be one of the most, if not the most, expensive houses in North Carolina.  Obviously Edwards not only has the money, he earned it, but one wonders how such extravagance plays for the populist candidate?  My guess is that it's a personal choice that may come back and bite him as he is out there associating himself biographically and otherwise with the less fortunate.  These are unforgiving times.

Hillary Clinton has been forced out of any coyness, or so it is claimed, by the emergence of Obama whose book remains atop the New York Times bestseller list.  Her great strength beyond being the #1 FOB, is that she is the first credible (translate that might actually win) woman candidate.  In that sense a lot of people, even some of us who are not that excited about her, see an opportunity to break another one of those seemingly impenetrable ceilings.  Just as it's thrilling to see Madam Speaker, it will be all the more so to say Madam President.  It is a sentiment that in the end may make a critical difference and push her through the nominating process.  The problem Senator Clinton is facing at this moment however is her long support of the war.  It may well be that some of the Senators who voted in favor of using force in Iraq did so with grave misgivings (and quickly regretted it), but I think she truly bought into the concept of ousting Saddam.  She, as former First Lady, was probably more privy to intelligence gathered during her husband's tenure and had greater conviction about the WMD threat.  While paying some lip service to the usual "if I had known then..." her issue with the war's conduct since has been largely executional not strategic.  She may never have been as hawkish as longtime Clinton friend Joe Lieberman, but she could never have been accused of being a dove.  All of that explains her present uncomfortable dance of back tracking without looking like a flip flopper and, sadly in terms of advancing women's fortunes in high office, she may not be able to pull it off.

Barack Obama, who remains my first choice, faces his own problems.  He has been consistent on the war and while not in the Senate at the time there is contemporaneous evidence to suggest that he would not have voted for it.  He did after all, contrary to advice given him at the time (as described in his book), speak out publicly against the invasion.  He remains an opponent to this day and in that regard carries none of the inconsistency baggage borne by all others except (the vanity candidate) Dennis Kucinich.  Obama's big problem remains a slim resume which allows others to suggest that he could potentially be another Bush albeit with a vastly different ideology.  The argument here is that we desperately need experience not to mention competence and we are in no position to risk a leap of faith in that regard.  Of course, the comparison with Bush is misleading for while the current incumbent in the White House came to office with no foreign policy experience, the Administration's policy was driven, especially in those days, by the most seasoned grey heads on the planet including the compliant Colin Powell.   I for one think the country is hungry for someone new and, while Obama personally may share limited experience with George Bush, he can't be accused of representing a Texas dynasty or for that matter any dynasty at all.  Regardless, this will be hotly contested race and whoever is left standing will at the very least have been tested.

I do have one personal hope this time around.  When relatives are clearing out my things some time in the future, I sure hope they don't come across some thank you letter from the defeated Democratic candidate in 2008.  We can't let that happen.

Saturday, January 6, 2007

Ms. Speaker

“Today we have broken the marble ceiling.”  So proclaimed Nancy Pelosi as she took control of the House, the first woman to hold the Speakership.  It was a truly exciting moment not merely for the women that she addressed with those words but for all Americans.  Watching the swearing in on C-Span, was one of those rare being witness to history experiences.  The atmosphere on the floor with numerous children sitting at the side of the parents or grandparents (who included the new Speaker) for the special occasion and in the visitor’s gallery above was both warm and festive.  Lots of hugs, a sense albeit momentary, that this was not Democratic or Republican history being made, it was American.

But before we congratulate ourselves on this milestone, let’s not forget how long it took to reach this point.  It was 1789 when the first, Frederick Muhlenberg, ascended to the office and every Speaker since, a period of 218 years, has been a man.  Thanks to those revered Founding Fathers who apparently took the words “all men are created equal” literally. women remained disenfranchised and didn’t even get the right to vote until 1920 a mere six years before the new Speaker’s father Thomas D’Alesandro took his seat in the Maryland House of Delegates.  Indeed it is a sign of how modest our progress has been that the election of a woman as Speaker is big news.  Perhaps the old Virginia Slims tag line, “you’ve come a long way baby” resonates, but still in an unmistakably small voice.  Sure we’ve had some progress, but it’s been at the margin.  Ninety women may now sit on the House floor and that should not be discounted, but real breakthroughs, a chain of repeating accomplishments remains illusive. 

We now have had female Secretaries of State in two successive administrations (though both only in second terms) and, thanks to President Clinton, a second woman finally made it to the Supreme Court, but as of last year the first was gone and another woman has not taken her place.  In fact gender backsliding is the rule not the exception.  Both India and Israel elevated women (Indira Ghandi and Golda Meir) to Prime Minister in just over two decades after their founding and Margaret Thatcher held that post in London for a record setting eleven years, but their tenures were aberrations, one-offs not to be repeated in the intervening years.  Germany now has a woman atop its government, but don’t count on there being another any time soon.

The Speaker’s triumphant words notwithstanding, both the marble and glass ceilings remain in tact where most of us live and work.  Also, let’s remember that despite the considerable powers of the Speaker, thanks to Henry Clay’s conduct of the office, it remains only in the line of succession – the second at that – not at the center of real power which resides in the Oval Office not on the Hill.  Perhaps we will see a first woman President in 2008 with Hilary Clinton entering the race in the weeks to come, but her election much less her nomination, is by no means a foregone conclusion.  Even I who would so much like to see a woman in the White House have my doubts about her (largely about her stance on the War) and at this point am looking more to potentially the first President of color, Barack Obama, whose positions are more in line with my own.  But ironically it may not be people like me who will make it difficult for Hilary; it’s a lot of women.  As one of them put it to me in an email just yesterday, “I don’t think we’re ready for a woman President, perhaps a Vice President first”.  Sadly, that sentiment is still widespread and has little to do with Ms. Clinton’s supposed polarizing personality. 

The truth is that Americans are still more comfortable with the notion of women in supporting roles.  Even there, the independence of a Betty Ford praised at her husband’s funeral last week still stretches the limit as did the role of Ms. Clinton when she expressed more interest in health care than in baking cookies.  Eleanor Roosevelt, probably the most activist First Lady in history was widely reviled in her time and many in the country breathed an audible sigh of relief when Bess Truman stayed home in Independence and Mamie Eisenhower kept largely to herself even when in the White House.  So men may have a strong lady behind them, but they continue to rule.  When we depart from that “norm” we require a level of performance never demanded from men.  Make no mistake about it, everyone will be waiting for Nancy Pelosi the gentle lady from California’s every misstep.  She will be expected to embody perfection and will be given little if any slack.  That’s where things really are.  With that reality, the only question I would ask of my fellow men as they consider the new Speaker and other women in high places is, given our largely preemptive power, have we done such a great job at running things all these years?  Consider what our entitlement has wrought in this increasingly troubled world.  Need I say more?  So congratulations Ms. Speaker, we’ve been waiting for you.

Monday, January 1, 2007

Time for Change

It’s been some time since my last post.  I must confess a life that has been somewhat in limbo in the back and forth between New York and Chapel Hill in what can only be described as an incremental move.  During the past years I have spent a few hours every other day running in that treasure New Yorkers know as Central Park.  It is a welcome respite of greenery in the midst of the concrete and, however stimulating and engaging, loud bustle of the city.  Looking out my window in Chapel Hill it is as if I’ve moved into the park.  Altogether there is a kind of transitional reverse taking hold of my life.  When it all started in July with an air mattress, card table and four folding chairs (speak of sparse) I defined this place as “the house” from which I made my way back “home” to New York.  As some new furniture (including a real bed) began to arrive and with successive full car trips an increasing number of my possessions from dishes to art coming to rest within these walls, Chapel Hill suddenly emerged as home and the place where I’ve lived for almost forty years became “the apartment”.  You can see I haven’t done this sort of thing often.  The transition will continue, though with ever diminishing impact, until everything is moved and I turn the keys over to the young family that is purchasing “the apartment”.

As they say, it’s been a year, for me it’s been an interesting one with a forward look, but for the country and the world, for the human family, not one that many will remember with much fondness.  If you are one who believes in symbolism there was plenty of it in the closing days, the three most dominant involved deaths, perhaps appropriately so.  Gerald Ford died peacefully in California a few days ago, Saddam Hussein was executed in Baghdad and just as we were ready to ring in 2007 it was reported that the 3,000th American succumbed to the violence that is Iraq. 

President Ford, as those of us old enough to have experienced Watergate know (40% of Americans were not yet born when it happened), returned stability to a government that had been torn apart and discredited by the what was sadly only the first throws not the end of the Imperial Presidency.  Ford was a refreshing every-person who embodied a kind of essential decency that we all hope characterizes the real America.  But in a larger sense while Ford’s body lies in state at this moment only a corridor away from his beloved House Chamber, we lost him and his kind of politics and governance a long time ago.  Civility, which he embodied, died so many years back that even public affairs junkies like me can’t fully visualize it any more.  So as Gerry Ford will be laid to rest amid limited (his wish) pomp and circumstance, we will be reminded of what is no longer but which, as his life demonstrated, apparently can be.

Saddam’s end can only be described as a gangland execution carried out by sectarian thugs wearing the hoods that we have come to associate with terrorists.  An ironic twist, that lays to rest the charade of “fighting it there” and bringing democracy to Iraq.  After a trial that should have taken place in The Hague but played out as a pathetic circus in a mock court setting followed by a laughable appeal process, the Shiite Prime Minister authorized back alley justice.  What could be more appropriate and symbolic of the quagmire that is Iraq these three years after our ill conceived invasion?  Ink stained thumbs of voters notwithstanding, if this what democracy is all about we are all in real trouble, though clearly not nearly as much in trouble as the children, women and men who now inhabit the cradle of civilization.  If there was any doubt left that Iraq has submerged into civil war and that radical Shiites are pulling even more strings in this puppet government than the Americans just take another look at the grainy cell phone images taken in that dark room early on Saturday morning.  Muqtada al-Sadar, the man whose Mahdi Army you may remember we routed early in the conflict, is alive and well, presiding in the not so hidden back halls of the apparent real seat of government, Sadar City.

We probably won’t know who the 3000th U.S. service person to die in Iraq was – war is one of those imprecise things.  More likely than not he or she was young, another twenty something, perhaps even a late teen.  It is hard to justify any of these losses or the many more lives that will be spent in various forms and stages of incapacity long after the hostilities end.  It isn’t only that war sucks; it is that this kind of war undertaken dishonestly and led ineptly makes those losses all the more poignant.  Of course we must all support our troops, the cannon fodder sent forth on a misguided mission each of whom have committed themselves with good conscience and a valor lacking in their national leaders.  Not only have they been sacrificed for what is undoubtedly going to end badly, but those who sent them lack any sense of urgency as they muddle toward a new way.  Gerry Ford died peacefully, Saddam at the hands of modern day Al Capone’s, but these kids and the lesser number of older more seasoned warriors along with them died senselessly.  Ford’s death makes one nostalgically sad, Saddam’s angry but these 3,000 make you really mourn.

Perhaps 2007 will be better.  We will have divided government and possibly some semblance of checks and balances, but presidents in our system hold most of the cards.  George Bush rules.  Logic and the facts on the ground suggest that we should begin the process of disengagement, the sooner the better.  More likely, if reports are correct, is a Johnson-like escalation that so-named “surge” as if it were some kind of inevitable force of nature in already turbulent sea.  The ’08 presidential aspirants are already lining up, some of them so unlikely that you wonder why they bother.  Could vanity be coming into play?  Most of these pretenders either come from the past, been there heard that, most carry the distinct baggage of what Republicans mockingly call “flip flop”.  They voted for and then voted or spoke against.  Most, in both parties, are bet hedgers moving back and forth from one interest group or ideology to another.  Perhaps it’s the way it has to be done in this democracy at this time, but I hope that’s not the case.  I’m still with Barack Obama, with something and someone totally new and fresh.  I expect that 2007 will tell us whether he has both the intention and possibility of taking it all the way to the White House in January 2009.  I think he does and will, but surely remain humbled by many wrong calls.  Let’s hope the odds are in my and our favor this time.

I’ll be fully moved in 2007 and am looking ahead with anticipation to the refreshment of change.  Change, now that’s something that we all need in times like these.  I bet that’s what you toasted to last night – real change.