Monday, April 23, 2007

Nobody's Hair Matters

Back in January I noted with some concern the message conveyed by John Edwards building a $6 Million 100 acre spread here in Chapel Hill.   "One wonders," I asked, "how such extravagance plays for the populist candidate?"  Now comes the $400 haircut about which Maureen Dowd wrote in a recent column and that has been grist for late night TV.  No doubt, these are excesses that are common to the newly rich of whom Edwards is a star member.  But the truth is that, however unfortunate and potentially damaging, this story is beside the point.  We face serious life and death issues these days and it is those that should get our undivided attention in the coming eighteen months.  The stakes are high, just consider the Supreme Court's latest decision, and we dare not allow ourselves to be distracted.

The Republicans have made an art of using language to direct public attention in their chosen direction.  Pro-life, death tax and partial birth abortion are just a few and they have used them with a discipline that is hard for Democrats to fathom.   Perhaps you missed the statements made my Congressional leaders after last week's meeting with the President.  You would have heard the Senator Mitch McConnell and Rep. John Boehner in characteristic lockstep use precisely the same word to characterize the Democrats' position on Iraq, "surrender".  I guess "cut and run" no longer pertains, but surrender?  It's clear that their star wordsmith Frank Luntz has forsaken politics and is off the case.  He has told interviewers that the American mood has turned too negative, and guess whose linguistic disinformation contributed to that?  No matter, the slogans don't seem to be working any more.  No one seriously thinks exiting Iraq constitutes surrender, which implies surrendering to someone even being taken over.  Ending the war will simply formalize what is already known.  We've failed there and it will be a Republican failure, aided an abetted by a compliant loyal opposition and largely neutered press.  Embedded by both the military and their large corporate owners, this was not the press of David Halberstam who tragically died earlier today in an automobile accident.

It wasn't only the post White House summit statements or the pathetic testimony of our Attorney General (great job "Fredo") that I watched on C-Span.  Prime Minister's Questions, undoubtedly one of Tony Blair's last, occupied some of my time.  I don't watch everyone one of these, but those that I do see are always enlightening.  The first thing that strikes me is the difference in both the language and spirit of debate between our House and the British Commons.  It's not the engaging accents but the coherent sentence structure and respect for the English language, not to mention the still cherished art of public discourse.  And then there is the humor.  No matter how bitter the debate, one side or the other always engages in a kind of playful sarcasm, which makes the point but bespeaks a mutual respect that is so often absent in Washington these days.  But the feeling that always overcomes me in watching these elegant gladiators is that our founding fathers may well have made a big mistake in not adopting the Parliamentary system for our fledgling democracy.  In Great Britain Tony Blair has to face the opposition (including some of his own back benchers) and engage.  Despite my great disappointment with what happened to him, I am always impressed by how deftly he does that.  He may know in advance what questions might be asked, but there are no "I can't recalls" in whatever comes his way.

Forget the appalling rhetorical contrast; would George Bush still be President if we had a Parliamentary system?  I don't think so.  Well we don't have one and despite the fact that most pundits say Americans have shut their ears to him, the Constitution gives our Presidents enormous power, lame duck or not.  He has done a great deal of damage, the full scope of which we will only know after he leaves office, but he can do more.  The current thinking about Paul Wolfowitz' problem at the World Bank is not so much that he set up cushy assignments and jobs for his girl friend but that our partners out there in the world no longer see the United States as the presumptive leader when it comes to economics or anything else.  That kind of talk would have been unthinkable in the Clinton era or for that matter during the tenures of either George Bush the elder of Ronald Reagan.

To turn that around, we are going to need something very different come January 20, 2009.  I don't think John Edwards fits that bill, which has nothing at all to do with his house or coiffure.  I don't think Hillary Clinton makes it either.  That continues to pain me since it is clearly about time that we had a woman in the Oval Office.  Ultimately, one of the Senator's unquestionable assets is also her biggest problem.  It's Bill.  Sure he remains enormously popular around the world, but in an unforgiving era he is yesterday and, when you get beyond the nostalgia (which I share), a flawed yesterday.  That's why I continue to support Barack Obama and for the reason that even Tom Friedman, who was so busy promoting best selling flatness that he became a cheerleader for Iraq's invasion, has come to realize.  The light went on for Friedman while on a recent trip to Africa.  There in the third world Obama isn't an Ugly American, he's a symbol of hope and the best that we know still lies within us.  If we're to get another chance at home and abroad, we need a baggage-free new face with new ideas.  We need beginnings more than experience.  I'm proud to live in the same town as John Edwards and am looking forward to being his full time neighbor for many years to come.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Shopping Won't Do

I haven't made a post in two months, but I'm finally settled in here in Chapel Hill and hope to keep in better touch.  Of course, the world hasn't had the luxury of taking time off so let me get to it.

George W. Bush's first reaction to 9/11 was to tell an unsettled nation to shop.  It appears the John McCain who was the first opponent to experience W's Swift Boating tactics during the South Carolina primary, has finally come full circle when it comes to the Decider.  He, together with his sidekick Lindsey Graham, has gone shopping.  And the two Senators - the straight talker and the Clinton impeachment prosecutor - got some real bargains.  Their rugs cost a buck a piece.  Of course one wonders what it cost the taxpayers to have all those fully armored and armed surge soldiers circle them not to mention the two Black Hawks hovering above.  If you've filled your tank recently you can imagine what fueling those suckers must cost.  McCain has not merely gone shopping he apparently is putting time in at Vegas as well, betting every last penny of those disappointing campaign funds on Bush's ill conceived War.

Now I'm not a huge fan of John McCain who, with all his straight talk appeal, remains a pretty consistent social and political conservative.  But, like others who disagree with his underlying positions, I have always found him to be both bright and engaging.  He knows how to connect with people and at some pretty crucial times he has spoken out with both reason and courage.  So what's up with this smart senator and a discredited war just at the moment when the pundits thought he had the Republican nomination all but locked up?  I think the answer is pretty simple, Viet Nam.  It is said that America never got over its defeat in Southeast Asia.   The experience seems to have driven our foreign and most importantly military policy for decades.  A series of Presidents including Reagan who spent so much on defense essentially kept their fingers far away from the trigger.  John McCain told 60 Minutes that he doesn't dwell on the past, which included not only the ugly whisper campaign in 2000 but most notably his long term imprisonment and torture.  If you believe that, you also believe Dick Chaney is just a happy cherubic grandfather.

John McCain, the proud son of a multigenerational military family, has never come to terms with the humiliation of Viet Nam.  He has long chafed at our reluctance to use military power in its aftermath.  Like Bush and company, he saw the direct attack on us in 2001 as the opportunity to shake off those Viet Nam cobwebs and show the world what we really could do.  This after all is the nation of the Greatest Generation that pulled itself out of the doldrums and won World War II.  The only problem is that Baghdad isn't Berlin, it's Saigon all over again and John McCain simply can't accept it.  He's mad as hell and not going to take it any more.  He smells victory around the corner, and if W can't take us there then let's at least hold on until President McCain takes command to finish the job.  Just what we need, but only in John McCain's mind.

If anything has reinforced my conviction that what we do desperately need is someone new, someone without the cobwebs of our past mistakes in his closet, it has been John McCain's performance in the last weeks.  It isn't simply that he (and others) are haunted b the past, they haven't learned from it.  Experience is a great thing, but only if it informs rather than blinds.  We need a fresh look and a fresh start.  The world out there has lost respect for us and for what they see is the American same old, same old.  I watched the Speaker of the House's press conference yesterday, called largely to justify her trip to Syria.  I for one think she was right to make it (as probably did the Republican politicians who were in Damascus before and after her), but listening her repeated reassurances that she had done nothing inconsistent with US policy unnerved me a bit.  It isn't that our policies are working that well, especially our refusal to sit down with anyone who disagrees with us.  It's time for us to disagree with our foreign policy, to pull back the guns and start talking to everyone, no strings or preconceived notions attached.

Well I'm settled in watching the races (and the world falling apart) from this University town.  We may be in a reddish state (North Carolina produced both Jesse Helms and John Edwards) but this is a strictly blue area.  Kerry-Edwards bumper stickers, left in place, abound in every parking lot.  It's green in this town, and not merely the beautiful trees and plants that abound.  But even the natives (who are not always easy to find in this or any place like it) seem to have had it with this Administration.  The only people in the country who don't know its over temporarily reside on or near Pennsylvania Avenue.  I'm here and I'm watching.  My Kerry-Edwards sticker has long since been removed from my rear window.  The Obama in '08 that's replaced it isn't there by accident.  At this point moving forward is what we need.  Watching John McCain wiggle through the last couple of weeks tells me that looking back simply won't work.  We don't learn, so we might as well start afresh.  Really afresh!