Friday, June 29, 2007

The Court of Least Resort

Perhaps it’s stating the obvious but for the moment chalk one up for the Right, we have a very conservative Supreme Court.  Iraq and our foreign policy remains a catastrophe, but we will be living with this Bush legacy for many years to come.  I do say for the moment because we have had examples of justices who, over time, changed sides and dramatically so.  Once conservatives Hugo Black and of course Harry Blackman, the author of Roe, surprised us.  But as we watch decision after decision handed down, one 5-4 ruling after another, that the clock is being turned back case-by-case is indisputable.  Of course this new majority isn’t made up of “judicial activists”, so at least we can rest easy in that regard.

Michelle Goldberg, whose book Kingdom Coming I referenced in a recent post, suggests that we can’t look at the courts these days to redress infringements on civil and privacy rights or the separation of church and state.  We’ll have to rely more heavily our legislatures and on the executive branch of government both on the local and national level.  That means we have win elections.  Perhaps we only now are seeing the damage five conservative justices can do, but we don’t have to be reminded of what happens when the other branches of government fall into the hands of rightist ideologues.  We can’t appoint judges, but we sure can determine who sits in the House, Senate and on Pennsylvania Avenue.  And forget about mandates. The Bush v. Gore outcome, a harbinger of things to come, showed us how powerful the office of President can be, elected or, in that case, appointed.  Getting the office is what it’s all about, and getting real majorities on the Hill and equally important in the State legislatures has never been more essential.

Hilary Clinton remains the presumptive front-runner, and I would say for the moment, already anointed by the press.  They’re opining on how strong she is, how well informed abd what leadership skills she brings to the table.  All of that may be true and her being a woman still counts for a lot in a time we still have the most unequal representation.  But voters still don’t think she’s likable and that could be an Achilles heal.  Bush didn’t hold a candle to either Gore or Kerry intellectually or otherwise, but our fellow Americans just liked him better.  Likeability got him through and put us in mortal danger.  We may not be happy that our leader is selected in that way, but with few exceptions it’s probably always been the case.   A dour Hoover lost to the Happy Warrior, a seemingly equally humorless Carter lost to the Gipper and a stiff patrician named Bush lost to the man from Hope, replayed in reverse when the faux country bumpkin knocked off the veteran in pin stripes from Massachusetts.

Any way, front-runner at this stage of the game doesn’t mean winner.  Remember the inevitable Howard Dean?  Moreover, I do think that you can be likable and still have substance, as some of those past likable winners certainly demonstrated.  The Democrats have a remarkably strong field (finally) and the party is both energized and hopefully will be united as never before.  I’m worried about Mayor Bigbucks who could be a spoiler, but hopefully he won’t find the waters that inviting when he sticks his billion dollar toe in for real.  I continue to support Barck Obama and get the sense the early polls belie his real strength or potential, but only time will tell.  Whatever the case, if you’ve been complacent about the Presidential race and equally about the Congressional and state contests ahead or the stakes involved, take a look at the last few news releases from the Roberts Court.  If that doesn’t keep you up at night, you need to drink some strong coffee before retiring so it will.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Blair to Brown

I embrace the notion that charisma counts.  Notice, I didn’t say image because, unlike charisma which is organic, image is something usually crafted by someone else to be superimposed and not always convincingly.  Communication skills count too, and may even lend some authenticity to the image bound.   Of course, charisma and communication skills are the more natural combination and Tony Blair came into office ten years ago with both firm in hand.  Natural combinations or not, in the end life is a leveler and in that, charisma, skillful communications and image equally give way when performance doesn’t match promise.  Alas, Blair left Downing Street a tarnished leader.

Some will say the British are a curious lot with quaint customs including at times a seeming lack of emotion and, in politics, an abruptness.  Blair leaves his residence, visits the queen and its all over.  Brown leaves his office, visits the queen and an hour after his predecessor’s departure takes up residence at Number Ten.  That’s quite different than we Yanks would do it for a Mayor much less the leader of the nation.  There was something else striking in this going and coming.  Both old and new Prime Ministers were driven with a single motorcycle escort in a small sedan, in Brown’s case with visible car traffic moving as usual in the opposite lane.  Far cry for the caravan of limousines, police, secret service escorts and emergency vehicles that interrupt normal life when our President goes about.  The British are not immune to such extravagant motorcades, but they’re reserved for the monarch who holds nothing but symbolic power.  Perhaps our way is necessary, but what I saw today on the tube was refreshing, a reminder that we are all mortals.

Tony Blair started so well.  He reminded everyone of Clinton but perhaps equally of JFK.  Young, charismatic, articulate and out to change the world…for the better.  As I’ve noted before, listening to him verbally joust with friend and foe alike during Prime Minister’s questions was a sheer delight.  It made one yearn for a leader who could put two thoughts together in coherent sentences, elegantly (and grammatically) expressed.  Isn’t ironic, all that pomp combined with the excruciatingly mundane in our country compared with so much simplicity combined with such sophistication across the pond?  It smacks of a cover-up and its hard to know on which side, perhaps at times both.

In any event, the bold leader moves on weighed down by the image of a pet poodle, and look at whose poodle to boot.  “Oh, how the mighty have fallen in the midst of battle” (in which so many others needlessly die).  It’s an interesting thing about leadership and one repeated time after time in history.  Leaders are often brutally remembered and marked more for their mistakes than for their accomplishments.  Lyndon Johnson is the prime example in our time, but Woodrow Wilson suffered the same fate as did Nixon and undoubtedly will our current president.  Whatever good Blair did, he will always be associated with Iraq, occupying by his own choice, the same sorry bed as George W. Bush.  Like Bush here, he lied, or to put it more politely and deferentially, stretched the truth (mightily one must add), to the British cajoling them into an unwanted war.  Like Bush, he stayed the misguided course, and defends it to this day.  Americans love to hear him talk and say that he expresses why we’re there so much better, but our friends in the Mother Country weren't taken in by the glib explanations.  Bad policies are bad however well they are expressed.

The one thing Tony Blair can’t take away from me is my belief that charisma and effective communications are vital components of leadership.  That he didn’t use them well may make me sad and probably more so angry, but most excellent trees produce a few flawed apples.  Tony Blair is one of them.  Nobody ever accused Gordon Brown of having a wit of charisma and his communication skills are undoubtedly less facile than Blair’s.  Perhaps in the present context that’s not such a bad thing, but whatever talents, known and hidden, he will have to prove himself to this own people.  He probably won’t win the hearts of Americans like Tony did.  Perhaps that bodes well for mankind.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Ah, the Culture of Life

It seems the solemn religious act of protecting the unborn is to be done at the expense of the living.  Now that’s the “culture of life” for you.  George Bush, whose misguided war has resulted in untold collateral damage including to be sure the death of pregnant women carrying legitimately defined unborn is, if nothing else, a man of his word.  He promised to veto the sucker and he did.  I could understand if, upon the advice of scientific advisors, the President would use his veto pen because stem cell research were considered dangerous or perhaps even if it were not ready for prime time.  But make no mistake about it, this (for the second time) was a veto born out of a personal religious conviction, not out of any sense or interest in the public’s welfare.  It’s OK with our “decider” to throw unused stem cells in the trash, but not to use them to combat disease and infirmity, not to prolong real lives.  That would be unethical, ungodly.

I’m just reading the final pages of Michelle Goldberg’s chilling “Kingdom Coming” (now in paperback).  I commend it as a must-read for anyone concerned about our democracy.  If you think that overturning Roe is our biggest problem, you’ll quickly find out that it’s but the tip of the iceberg.  Religious zealots are hell bent on theocratic rule and George Bush is in the stream of this movement.  Just look at the large number of narrowly sectarian schooled religious activists he’s put in place at the White House and across many federal agencies.  Look also at the Billions of taxpayer dollars being spent on religious institutions under the guise of the “faith based initiative” and doled out in so named offices throughout government departments.  You and I are paying people to do God’s work under guise of social services and it may not even be the God you’d expect or in whom you believe.

The upcoming election is about the war for sure and also healthcare, global warming and issues of economic and social inequality.  But this election at every level is also about protecting our democracy and maintaining that wall of separation that Thomas Jefferson so eloquently wrote about in his letter to the Virginia Baptists.  Listen carefully to the words spoken by some of the nation’s senators and congressman in debate in both chambers.  C-Span isn’t an essential only for nerds and political junkies any more.  Consider the Justice  Department scandal and the testimony (and academic credentials) of Monica ’07.  If you think only the Islamists send their kids to Madrassas you’re traveling in dreamland.  Do you know how many American children are being home schooled, how many are being nurtured by religious day schools to be the vanguard of a different kind of America?

Some weeks back Charlie Rose interviewed a group of stem cell researchers who spoke of the tremendous promise it has, but also reminding us that this at-the-edge discovery.  It won’t bear therapeutically applicable fruit for some time.  Progress is being made, but not nearly as big as could be or as is desperately needed.  What’s in the way?  George Bush and the Religious Right’s roadblocks.  Thinking of all those who could benefit from this work, my blood was boiling and while alone in the room I so wished someone could hear my screams.  This was not just another veto, it was war and we better start taking it seriously.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Independent Wealth

Full disclosure.  I think Mike Bloomberg has been a very good mayor for New York, especially in contrast to the arrogant and divisive Rudy.  I have no particular problem with billionaires, especially with ones who personally created the enterprises that made them so rich.  I had two chances to vote for Bloomberg and twice declined, partly because I couldn’t bring myself to support any Republican after 2000.

Like many Americans, I’m pretty discouraged with our current state of affairs and with the dismal performance of both political parties.  In that regard, the idea of a third way (not Clinton’s triangulation but a legitimate third way) is quite appealing.  That said, such efforts have a rather dismal record in American history usually with unintended consequences: Bull Moose brought Wilson, Perot elected Clinton and of course Ralph Nader gave us the disastrous George W. Bush.  I guess you could say third parties have been equal opportunity contributors.  None of them represented a coming together of a real (and winning) counter coalition, the thing you would hope for from such an effort.

What bothers me about the trial balloon released into the airwaves about a Bloomberg presidential bid is something quite different.  It’s the same thing that turned me off when he first ran in New York and bothered me about Jon Corzine’s campaigns in New Jersey.  What Bloomberg might be able to do is something that few others can.  He can essentially buy his way into office; they are talking half a billion dollars.  Not having to obtain contributions in the usual (and admittedly sometime sordid) way has its positive side.  You don’t owe anyone, but the idea that the Presidency is for sale to the highest bidder much like the object of a hostile takeover is disquieting.  Again, Bloomberg has a good management record in both the private and public sectors and I do share his progressive social views.  But that’s not the point.  We already have a situation where running for major public office favors the well healed, but winning office because you can dip in your pocket and outspend everyone else even (theoretically) with a constituency of one makes no sense in a democracy.  Let’s remember the self financed Corzine felt he was free to break New Jersey’s seat belt law, which almost cost him his life and the state its elected governor.

I hope Mike Bloomberg doesn’t launch an independent campaign which is destined to hurt a liberal Democrat more than a conservative Republican in our closely divided country.  But if he feels so compelled, I hope such an effort would come out of coalition building and cost sharing, a candidacy built the old fashioned way.  That may also lead to another Republican president, but at least it would have some democratic legitimacy.  By the way another Republican in the White House is not an idea any of us should take lightly.  How does Mr. Justice James Inhofe sound to you?