Sunday, October 19, 2008


The endorsement of Barack Obama by Colin Powell is another blockbuster event of this campaign, but perhaps not for the reasons you think.  To be sure, it was among the most thoughtful and, as one of my sons suggested in an email, content-rich of the campaign season.   Perhaps most striking was that Powell was the first major political figure to squarely address the “he’s a Muslim” red herring properly.  “Mr. Obama is a lifelong Christian, not a Muslim”, he said, adding…the really right answer is, what if he is?  Is there something wrong with being Muslim in this country?  No, that’s not America.” To drive the point home, he spoke movingly of Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan, a twenty year old New Jersey born Muslim serviceman who gave his life for us in Iraq.  That statement alone made Powell’s appearance on Meet the Press memorable.  But, again, I think it’s not the central story.

As we approach the election we are hearing once again about the so-called “Bradley Effect”, that once in the privacy of the voting both people will, belying polls, not vote for a candidate of Color.   And of course Powell was asked if his endorsement itself was motivated by the wish to see a fellow African American prevail.  While he responded directly to that in the negative, the fact is that Powell himself is the response. That’s what is so significant about his endorsement.  There was a time, and it was long ago, when one heard about Colin Powell being the first Black man to hold this or that job.  His various achievements can be counted as milestones in that regard, much like Thurgood Marshall’s elevation to the Court.  But the fact is, Americans no longer think of Powell in that narrow way.

Powell is a trusted leader and hero.  He was the commander of NATO and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs.  He was National Security Adviser and Secretary of State.  When we think of him, we think of the “Powell Doctrine”, the need to go to war only as a last resort, define the mission and use overwhelming force in the execution.  Of course there are those bigots who will always view a person of Color with prejudice.  But, I would venture that when thinking about General Powell, the vast majority of Americans are colorblind.  They think about his competence, about his proven ability to instill trust.  It wasn’t his being an African American that made some of us furious when he appeared before the United Nations in the run up to the Iraq War.  It was that a man so measured could allow himself to speak for what we thought was such a patently wrongheaded venture.

In his person, Colin Powell speaks volumes to why Americans are so drawn to Barack Obama.  We don’t see him as and African American candidate, but as an American Candidate who happens to be African American just as Jack Kennedy was a candidate who happened to be Catholic.  Powell’s service has transcended his racial identity.  It’s not that he ever sought to run away from his roots, but that ultimately it isn’t how he is judged.  Barack Obama, with a name of clear African origin, brought up by a White mother and grandparents, chose to proudly identify with the African side of his roots, but not to be defined by them any more or less than any other American is defined by theirs. 

So Obama is Black, Kareem Khan was a Muslim and, for that matter, this writer is a Jew.  What of it?  We are all citizens with the same vote.  Obviously Colin Powell wants us to think of him when we go to the polls, to consider the American Republican who will vote Democratic this year because that party's nominee is the right person to lead us at this time in our history.  Take that away from today’s endorsement and I think you’ll have it just right. 

Friday, October 17, 2008

Change is Coming

At long last, we’re entering the home stretch of an extraordinarily long Presidential campaign.  Perhaps what’s most remarkable is how consistent it has been from the start.  Barack Obama entered the race with a message of change.  Two years later, and despite a deft issue shift from Iraq to the economy, it remains his central theme.   On the other side, his principal opponents have been equally consistent.  Hillary Clinton ran on experience to the degree that when she finally sought the mantle of change-agent it wasn't credible.  Apparently having learned nothing from observing the Democratic contest, John McCain opted for the same message, making the same mistake.  Like Clinton, McCain, burdened by underlying message out of sync with the current environment, has had to constantly rearrange the deck chairs on what I remain confident is a sinking ship.  Clinton made major strategic mistakes and McCain has repeated them.  In some ways, they are so much alike, each viewing the Presidency as almost a birthright.  Clinton paid her dues at the side of her husband, McCain not only as a POW but has a third generation family warrior. Their shared feelings toward the “upstart” with the audacity to hope read on their faces with each encounter from her many Democratic debates to his this past Wednesday night.

Barack Obama says we should not be cocky and he is right.  There is much to do and being for him is not enough.  Everyone must vote.   That acknowledged, I continue to believe his victory will be decisive, perhaps of landslide proportions.  This is, and has always been, a watershed election.  Throughout history the party in power has never prevailed in the face of either an unpopular war or a bad economy.  We have both in spades.  If you need any further confirmation, consider that an astounding 90% of Americans think we’re headed in the wrong direction.  That alone suggests an appetite for change.  Bill Clinton famously said, “the era of big government is over”.  Considering the events of the past weeks, I’ll let you judge how accurate was his characterization.  What seems clear me in 2008 is that era of Ronald Reagan is over.  

Just as Communism turned out to be a bust, unregulated free markets have brought too many of us to the brink of bankruptcy.   The Reagan Revolution has run its course and been discredited.  Some of the intellectual conservatives are running for the hills, loudly distancing themselves from the ideology they so confidently espoused.  Some are actually supporting Obama.  They claim no conversion, but a disagreement over tactics.  Right, just as McCain’s laughable dissent from the war he wholeheartedly supported is over tactics not substance.  “We’re winning, my friends.”  The fact is that all that pompous absolutism that we’ve heard from the Right in the past decades is an Emperor without Clothes, a sham exemplified by faulty foreign and domestic policy.  Perhaps a percentage of the population remains fooled – working people and small business types who still think Republicans have been good for them or the Jews who claim (inexplicably) that Bush has been good for Israel.  But I think the majority of us know the score, perhaps not all can articulate it but we certainly can feel it.

Is it time for a change?   You bet it is, and change is coming on November 4.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

The Press Gives a Pass

When they write the history of our times, I hope someone will examine the role played by the press.  It is an accepted truism that a free press is central to democracy, and thankfully that’s what we have.  American print and broadcast journalism rests on the shoulders of giants whose like can still be found in newsrooms and broadcast studios across the land.  Particularly reassuring are the young women and men dedicating their lives to high level reporting here and elsewhere including dangerous war zones, many of them elevating us with elegant prose.  So there is much to be thankful for, but the news isn’t universally good.  In fact, some of our most visible media either reflects the spirit of disturbing Hearst-like bias (right and left) or seems more attuned to showmanship than enlightenment.   It is that kind of journalism that has focused us on what can generously be called “the trivial” and, in doing so, has robbed its audience of the information it so desperately needs.  A huge percentage of our public is ill informed or worse, misinformed.

Without question, our level of knowledge and opinions are increasingly influenced by the ultimate in free “press”, the Internet.  Much of what is found there is surprisingly good, but all too often it more than meets or exceeds the “garbage in, garbage out” test.  Moreover, the lion’s share, including this writing, reflects one person’s unchecked opinion.  That may be ultimately self-correcting, though the jury is still out.  What we do know, is that some of the garbage promulgated online is repeated, lightly filtered (if at all), by professional cable and even broadcast media.  That, coupled with the “show” mindset, produces skewed or sound byte length “information” that is destined to be misleading or superficial.  Person-on-the street interviews reflect not so much the “garbage” maxim, but the sheer absence of substantive information.  Then too, again motivated in part by ratings and commerce, there is an atmosphere of overt or implied intimidation that keeps reporters and bay or impels them to over-balance, lest they be pushed off the assignment or lose their jobs.  All of that has played out during this election cycle, which explains but doesn’t excuse the present circumstances.   That brings me to the much-anticipated Vice Presidential Debate and the performance of the press in its aftermath.

Let’s forget for a moment all the spin about high and low bars and the contrast between the painful moments of dumbfounded hesitation witnessed earlier in the week and the virtual running at the mouth seen on Thursday.  In any self-respecting university, a student doesn’t get credit for the word count of a term paper but for the quality of its content.  Filling the time allotted with words should be no barometer of success.  To their credit, most polls and pundits scored the debate for, "may I call him Joe".  Even so, what really caught my attention was how many purportedly smart journalists felt compelled to declare how well Governor Palin had done.  It was the “fair” and safe thing to do.  The only hint of objective criticism was the widely declared cop out conclusion that the debate was “no game-changer”.  That may be true, but the preamble of meritorious performance left me speechless.  I sat through Thursday night’s session (watched on C-Span to be free of off camera press commentary), and saw a stream of robot-like and often garbled pronouncements – they weren’t responses – peppered with a few, often misquoted or disjointed, golden oldie zingers.  “Say it isn’t so Joe, there we go again.”  I witnessed a contrived folksy tone complete with winks that was at one patronizing and an insult to the adult intelligence of city and country mice alike.  It was bad enough on the first hearing, profoundly worse on the next day’s rereading of the transcript.  The press, by and large, gave her a pass.

I’m sure they (and there were some exceptions, usually blatantly partisan in tone) felt under great pressure to “be fair” and thus forgiving.  And here lies the problem.   As anyone who reads these posts knows, I don’t agree with John McCain.  In the sense of full disclosure, I am beginning to truly dislike him.  I think he would be a terrible, even dangerous, president and have often suggested so.  There are areas in which McCain has greater expertise than others.  To his detriment in the current environment, he knows little about the economy.  But I don’t for a moment question John McCain’s credentials or the fact that he is vastly more qualified to be president than the current occupant of the White House.   He is not, like his opponent, a gifted writer or orator, but his utterances are generally coherent.  Again, he surpasses the incumbent.   With that in mind, let’s return to Palin and the press assessment of her performance.  Many of them suggested that she rehabilitated herself after a disastrous two weeks, presumably with the American public or at least her partisans.  If that’s the case, shame on us, and shame on any such suggestion.  Perhaps the bar was set low for her, but can we accept one set so low for ourselves?

We are considering an occupant of the second highest office in the land.  This is potentially someone who will have her hand on the tiller of our nation.   She isn’t being considered for some tangential job and, if elected, she can’t be easily fired for at least four years.  The power of both the Presidency and the Vice Presidency, we have learned by bitter experience, is enormous.  Those who raise their hands and take to oath can change history and our lives with virtually no constraints.  Hello, members of the press.  I’m not concerned about the weight of the term paper submitted no matter how energetically and there is no “get-out-of-jail-free” card to be tossed on the Monopoly board.  The press, all their digging notwithstanding, continues to give this frighteningly unprepared and seemingly unqualified person a pass.  Yes her disjointed rambling may have made it at the PTA meeting, in a town with fewer inhabitants than a two block radius around my former New York residence or in running the sparsely populated state of Alaska whose fortunes rise with the price of oil just as those of the lower 48 diminish.  But we’re beyond that here and just getting out some words doesn’t cut it.  Much of the press gave Sarah Palin a pass.  We shouldn’t give them one.  They blew it and, in doing so, did us a great disservice.

I continue to believe, as I have from the outset, that in the end this election won’t be close.  Some fear that behind the curtain there will be voters who, despite what they tell pollsters, will submit to racial prejudice.  Perhaps, but I hope we are beyond that.  There are many reasons why John McCain is likely to go down.  He pinned his hopes, as we thought did Barack Obama, on issues of the war and foreign policy.  While now loudly claiming to be so foresighted about Fanny and Freddie, he has been blind sighted by the financial crisis.   Perhaps you can’t really see people's everyday struggle at the river’s edge in breathtaking Sedona.  But for many voters, John McCain will go down because of his cavalier decision on the Vice Presidency.  Sarah Palin may be judged harshly, but not so harshly and deservedly as the person she sometimes calls “her running mate”.    And the press, it shouldn’t give John McCain or Barack Obama an inch, and it certainly shouldn't give Sarah Palin a pass now or when she returns to the capital of her home state and once again becomes their problem not ours.