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Monday, April 28, 2008

I made an important decision over the weekend - that I would NOT watch or listen to the political pundits on ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and CNN and the usual line up of guests talking about the same old thing - and of course at the moment, it’s the never ending struggle between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Apart from being bored to death by all of the speculation being spouted by the pundits, I’ve had it up to the proverbial "here" with the knee jerk political mantras that both candidates continue to spout. I suppose it’s too much to a ask, but if I had any eye teeth left, I would sacrifice one of them just to hear a little substance instead of nonsense about Americans worrying about health care and the price of gas and putting food on the table. And yes, we’d like to be free of the need to depend on foreign oil - but saying it doesn’t give me any confidence that it’s going to cost me any less to fill the tank of my Toyota Camry during a Clinton or Obama administration.

I’d feel a lot better if just one of them said - look, as far as gas prices are concerned, we’ve got to have a multi-track approach to the problem. We have to have cars that get better mileage - but as long as we’re stuck with the internal combustion engine for our road transportation, we need to work on the elements that affect the price of gasoline. That includes production - the amount that is pumped out of the ground every day and is available for world wide supply - and the futures markets where the price of crude oil is determined day to day and hour to hour. If we can curb the speculative aspect of the oil futures market, we should be able to knock a substantial amount off of the price per barrel of oil. But beyond efforts that my administration would undertake to bring down the price of crude oil and of gasoline at the pump, I would propose a Manhattan style project to develop not only alternative fuels - but alternative engines to be driven by those fuels. As long as we think in terms of finding fuels just for the internal combustion engine, we’ll continue to be stuck in the grip of oil prices of one kind or another.

Now if Obama or Clinton would say something like that on one of these talking head shows, I might give them another chance between now and next August - or whenever the final selection of the Democratic candidate takes place. In the meantime, I did watch a couple of things over the weekend that are worthy of some comment.

One was the Bill Moyers interview of Jeremiah Wright and his subsequent appearance at the Detroit chapter of the NAACP and today at the National Press Club. I don’t know how much Wright’s sudden rash of appearances hurts Obama - for sure it doesn’t help - but I don’t think he cares one way or another. Had the endless loop of GD America et al not surfaced, I’m sure he would have been reasonably active in his retirement. He was and is a highly regarded Christian minister. Bill Clinton once called him to the White House to minister to him in his post Lewinsky days of scandal. Of course he wasn’t the only black preacher called on by Bill - but he was one of them. And what he’s doing now is - at least in his mind, is defending his reputation and legacy.

During the Moyers interview, we saw a highly educated and thoughtful man - not the caricature that the looped sound bites exhibited. We already knew that he had served in the marines and that later, as a navy medical technician, he had been in the operating room during LBJ’s 1966 surgery at Bethesda Naval Hospital - after which he received three letters of commendation from the White House. But he began his assault on Obama when he tried to explain why his famous parishioner condemned the words in those sound bites, He could have said that he was sure that Barack sincerely felt that the words were, as he had called them, divisive - rather than what he did say - that Obama is a politician and had to say what he did as a matter of political expediency.

During the long introduction to he appearance before the Detroit NAACP, we learned the Wright has two masters and one Ph.D. degree, speaks five languages and is a published author. No doubt the guy is as bright as a new penny. But as his NAACP speech and his Press Club appearance revealed, he is either teetering on the brink of madness - after all, there is a fine line between genius and insanity - or his ego is so large, it blocks his access to his vision, his hearing and whatever common sense might be buried in what is left of his sane gray matter. Or - and this is a thought to consider, he is for Hillary or McCain or thinks Obama is the last person on earth who should be president of the United States.

I won’t bother to recount the nonsense that he spouted at these two appearances. They’re all over the Internet. I will offer advice to Obama. Dismiss this guy with a sad statement. Say that you don’t recognize the man you once knew and who led you to the bible and to belief in Jesus Christ. Say that you’re not responsible for anything the Reverend says and that you’re not going to comment on it any more. It has nothing to do with the election. But make that ALL you say in distancing yourself from your ex-pastor. Do NOT add the by now annoying mantra about needing to concentrate on matters that concern the American people and how to improve their lives. It makes you sound like a run-of-the-mill politician - which is the way your former pastor is now portraying you.

Enough about Wright.

More interesting than the Wright appearances was the 60 Minutes interview of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. Scalia has the reputation of being a hard nosed right winger who attacks and insults both lawyers appearing before the court and fellow justices with whom he disagrees. Ruth Bader Ginsberg has been on the receiving end of some of his barbs - yet she and Scalia are friends - and there she was on the program saying how charming the man could be. And indeed during the interview, some of it conducted at his old New York haunts - outside his old apartment and inside his old grade school - he seemed both human and charming. But his charm couldn’t hide the revelation of the chore of the man - the part behind the charm that so many fear and despise. It wasn’t so much that he describes the Constitution as a "dead" document - or that, in response to a question about the Bush vs Gore decision he said we should "get over it." It was his comments on torture.

To his credit, he said he didn’t "like" torture. Isn’t that special? But when Lesley Stahl suggested that torture should be disallowed under the ban on "cruel and unusual punishment" provision of the eighth amendment to the Constitution, he played antics with semantics. Punishment? Whose being punished? When someone’s being tortured, he’s not being punished. Whoever is doing the torturing is trying to get information. That’s not punishment. That’s not cruel and unusual.

And this is one of nine people who determine what our laws really mean. Doesn't that fill you with confidence in the courts of our nation?

Stahl didn’t ask him if he thought that large numbers of people were engaged in an ongoing attack of "the black church" or if he believed that the U.S. had "created" AIDS to eliminate minorities - but his answers might have been even more revealing of the man’s thinking than his view that torture and punishment were mutually exclusive entities. What would be absolutely delicious would be for the Reverend Wright to bring suit against some individual -who he believes maligned him or bruised his ego or whatever - or even against the government of the United States - and of course lose in court after court and end up appealing to the Supreme Court - which, in a moment of unrestrained humor, decided to take the case,

Jeremiah Wright - meet Antonin Scalia. And may the biggest ego win.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Rush Limbaugh says he knows how to put an end to these interminable Democratic primaries. The only time I ever get to hear anything that Limbaugh says is when I’m in the car and punching from station to station - which is what I was doing, driving around on Wednesday and Thursday . There was the mouth telling me that Obama could put an end to the race by asserting that the Pennsylvania results were a fraud!! How? Why? Because Rush Limbaugh had told his Pennsylvania listeners - presumably all Republicans other than the handful that monitor him for the comedy writers of The Daily Show, The Colbert Raport, The Stephanie Miller Show and others - to change their registration from Republican to Democrat and vote in the Democratic primary for Hillary Clinton. Just to assure that the chaos continues for a while longer. Limbaugh even calls his efforts to disrupt the Democratic primaries "Operation Chaos"

I don’t know how many Pennsylvania Republicans switched party registration in recent months, but there have been quite a few. I saw one estimate of 178,000, but I’m not sure that there’s any known reliable figure. I don’t doubt that a good many who switched did so in support of Limbaugh’s "Operation Chaos." After all, if they wanted to defeat John McCain, all they needed to do was vote for his Democratic opponent in November. There would be no compulsion to change their party registration unless they were true converts to the Democratic party and had a strong preference for either Clinton or Obama. But absent the effect of Republican dirty tricksters, the question of why Obama couldn’t win in Pennsylvania is being asked by pundits and - scornfully - by Hillary Clinton.

Why can’t Obama close the deal asks Hillary? In Pennsylvania, he outspent her - two to one or three to one - depending on whose weaving that particular spin on a particular day. He’s leading in pledged delegates. So why can’t he execute a coup de grace? Of course the obvious response to such a question is why can’t Hillary Clinton close the deal? She began this race as the presumptive candidate. She had loads of money to launch her effort. After an unexpected stumble in Iowa, she came roaring back in New Hampshire and looked like she was ready to reel off a string of victories. Nonetheless, Hillary’s question is relevant and the answer can be gleaned from the question. Obama can’t "close the deal" because Hillary won’t quit running - and since there aren’t enough delegates to be won from the remaining primaries for either one of them to reach the magic 2025 number, she’ll stay until the super delegates tell her the race is over.

But I have some thoughts on why Obama couldn’t "close the deal" in Pennsylvania. The state was supposed to be "tailor made" for Clinton, so - according to just about all the pundits - if Obama had won, she would have been forced to concede defeat. I don’t think she would have of course. She’s like the armless and legless Black Knight from "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" challenging King Arthur to "come back and fight like a man." But Obama - as the front runner and to many, including the Republican party - the presumptive candidate - should be winning, even in states that are "tailor made" for Clinton, simply because he is in the same position as was McCain in the closing weeks of the Republican primaries when it was just him and Romney. The majority of the voters should be flocking to his side and affirming his candidacy. The fact that they are not may signal a problem for the general election.

Obviously, large numbers of older women are knee jerk voting for Hillary Clinton. They’re voting for her because she’s a woman. They’re voting for her because they’ve waited a lifetime for a woman to become president and catch up with other democratic countries that seem to have no concern about gender when selecting their leaders. I’m all for a woman becoming president of the United States. I just don’t think it should be Hillary for a whole flock of reasons - too many to go into here. But will the woman who have voted for Hillary support Obama in November? Many will I’m sure, simply on the basis of him being the Democratic candidate and not wanting a continuation of any of Bush’s policies. But others may stay home on election day - or worse, vote for the white candidate. Which brings me to what I see as the biggest problem for Obama.

We’ve come a long way from the days of Jim Crow and separate schools and all of the horrors of segregation. But not far enough. We now have equality under the law but not necessarily in our hearts. In my comments of April 4, I spoke of watching a news report from Pennsylvania where an elderly voter was asked if race had any influence on his vote and after hemming and hawing he finally admitted that he wouldn’t vote for a black man. He was also identified as "working class" - a demographic that we are told tends to vote for Hillary, with whom they "identify" - rather than Barack, with whom they apparently do not.

All of this is punditry, born out by exit polling and post election analysis, but I have a hard time buying it. What is there about Hillary Clinton that makes her more acceptable to working class folk than Obama? She had a normal upbringing, an Ivy League education and stints as the wife of a state Governor and then President. I can pore over that history from now until the November election and still not see how she is more attractive to working class voters than Obama. Unless of course, "working class" is a useful appellation to avoid considering the possibility that there are blocks of the electorate that aren’t ready to vote for a black man. At least not while he still has a rival for the nomination. It may be that their distaste for George Bush and the fear of a four year extension of his policies will prove to be a greater threat to their lives than the vision of a black man in the White House and they’ll vote for Obama in November, but it’s no guarantee.

We are being told that Obama does better among better educated whites - and I can believe that, though it doesn’t change my view that "working class" may be code words for anti-black sentiment. I won’t designate it as bigotry. I don’t think it goes that deep - but I think it at least describes suspicion - which will need to be overcome.

I remember when Harold Washington became Chicago’s first African American mayor. He had overwhelming support from black voters, many of whom - probably the majority - could be described as "working class." Normally, the Democratic candidate for mayor in Chicago wins overwhelmingly over any opposition. In 1993, Washington won by 3.7% - 51.7% to 48%. Large numbers of white Chicagoans voted for the Republican candidate - but Washington needed white votes to eke out a victory - and he got them from lakefront wards where a high concentration of "liberal" - well educated white voters lived. And something similar to that seems to be happening in the Obama campaign. Better educated white voters simply do not see him as a "black man." But those who see skin color before they hear what the man has to say will not be that easy to win over in November.

As likable as John McCain may appear to be to many voters - and that could change when they get to learn the darker side of the man - this year’s presidential election should be a cakewalk for the Democrats. They’ll have a great candidate in Obama - but it will be a sad day indeed for this country if he loses and if his loss can be traced to voting patterns that cry out - racism!!

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

It was only a few days ago when I was comparing Bill Clinton unfavorably with the other living ex-presidents because they weren’t spending their time giving speeches and raking in millions. Now I have to reverse myself - at least partially. Compared to Jimmy Carter, Clinton is the epitome of how an ex-president should conduct himself - except when he’s campaigning on behalf of hi wife of course.

Carter has just pulled of a miraculous feat. He has solved the Israeli-Palestinian problem. He has persuaded Hamas to recognize Israel. He said so. I saw it on television so it must be true. This will surely go down in history alongside such other historic moments as Neville Chamberlain standing outside 10 Downing Street on September 30, 1938 after his meeting in Munich with Adolph Hitler and declaring that he had achieved "peace for our time" - and President George W Bush aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln on May 1, 2003 declaring that "In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed."

Of course there was a small difference between the Chamberlain and Bush statements and that of Mr. Carter. It took almost a whole year - until September 3, 1939 before England went to war against Germany and "peace for our time" got put on hold until 1945. And five years after "mission accomplished" was declared to the world by the backdrop to the Bush speech on the deck of the Abraham Lincoln, we are still stuck in Iraq. In Carter’s case , I think that Hamas leader Khalid Meshaal took only hours to make it clear that the meddling ex-president’s version of "peace for our time" was a bunch of hooey. Maybe it wasn’t even hours. For all I know, it might have been at the very moment when Carter was announcing his astounding break through when Meshaal was assuring the Arab media that Hamas would never recognize Israel. And of course - as is the Arab custom - the "breakthrough" was celebrated with a barrage of rockets fired from Gaza into southern Israel.

Maybe I shouldn’t be too hard on Carter. He’s just one of a long line of outsider do-gooders who seem to think that they can persuade madmen to abandon their madness. Some of Carter’s comments were particularly revealing of his naiveté. For example, he said he found the Hamas leadership, including Khalid Meshaal, to be "clear-thinking, educated people who gave no sign of fanaticism." Think about that. Carter sees people who, after 60 years, believe that their proper role is to fight a never ending war with Israel which will end with the destruction of that nation -who they refuse to acknowledge actually exists - as "clear thinking" who "give no sign of fanaticism!!"

And as further evidence of the clarity of their thinking, they propose a ten year "truce" - a pause to refresh before they continue their endless war - and in the meantime insist that any Arabs who left Israel in 1948 - and their descendants - be permitted to return and reclaim their original homes, if they exist - and presumably, if they don’t, to occupy whatever exists in their place. And, as has been the case for this demand over six decades, no mention was made to Mr. Carter of the suggested status of those who would be returning to their former homes. As petitioning Israeli citizens? As resident aliens? As a Hamas fifth column? Clear thinking indeed.

I have written here many times about this endless conflict. I have proposed solutions that would work to everyone’s advantage if sanity prevailed. I have corresponded with those on both sides of the conflict who have proposed solutions of their own. These have been sane people who are sincere in what they proposed. Unfortunately, the people representing the Palestinian Arabs who could ratify and honor such solutions are totally insane. There is some degree of insanity on the Israeli side to be sure. There are Israelis who believe that their borders should be expanded to encompass the Biblical land of Israel. There are Israelis who think that all Arabs should be expelled from Israel. But such people - even those who may be elected to the Knesset - are not leaders of the nation and will never be national leaders. Israeli prime ministers have been from the extreme left and from the extreme right - but all have been sane and all have been capable of agreeing to and enforcing a solution that Israelis and Palestinian Arabs could live with and ultimately benefit from. The same cannot be said of Palestinian leaders and neither can it be said of large segments of the Palestinian Arab population. The impossible dream is at the center of their demands. UN resolution181 and Israel’s declaration of independence remains for Palestinian Arabs as "Catastrophe Day" and continues to be "celebrated" as such to this day. Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas has been quoted as saying "We will never forget our identity and we won't forget the refugees" and "We have a homeland called Palestine that belongs to our forefathers... Today is the day of the crime of the expulsion of our nation all over the world."

And Abbas is the moderate Palestinian Arab leader.

I believe that there will one day be a resolution to the conflict. It will happen when Arab leaders emerge who pursue only what is practical and possible and in so doing win the support of a majority of Palestinian Arabs and the ability to suppress the independent jihad groups. I do not believe it will happen in my lifetime. And I certainly don’t believe that anyone from outside of the Middle East will be the catalyst for an ultimate resolution. That’s not to say that Jimmy Carter couldn’t make a useful contribution to the conflict. He could do so simply by staying home, growing peanuts and posing for an occasional Habitat for Humanity photo-op.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

That’s what we’ve come down to in this, the silliest week of the silly season. I had some hope that last night’s debate would be a fairly serious affair with Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos running the show - but I guess it was too much to hope for. It started out and stayed for45 or 50 minutes as three against one. Hillary, Charlie and George ganging up on Obama. One would think that with all of the serious issues facing the nation - what Obama said at a fund raiser in San Francisco a few days ago - and what the former pastor of his church said in a sermon a year ago or seven years ago, would not be "issues" to be raised by these veteran newsmen. But they not only brought them up and dwelled on them far too long - but added a new piece of nonsense - the fact that Obama knows and once sat on a charitable foundation board with one Willim Ayers - a University of Chicago professor who was a member of the Weather Underground domestic terrorist organization 40 years ago. It’s a non-issue and Obama did a good job of squelching it - but almost as silly as the question itself is the alleged inspiration for it being asked. Apparently Stephanopoulos was on Sean Hannity’s radio show and Hannity suggested the question. So the score was more like four against one - unless it’s revealed later that more of the "gotcha" questions aimed at Obama were "suggested" by other right wing pundits.

The debate decided nothing. Hillary was smoother. Obama was off his game. He was more hesitant and at time seemed to get lost on his way to making a point. But no knockout blows were landed by either candidate. Hillary stayed in the gutter, showing her desperation by latching on to the Reverend Wright and the William Ayers "stories" and expanding them beyond the questions asked by the moderators. And her apology for her "tales of the snipers" was hilarious - saying that she had told the truth about her Bosnia visit in her book - as though that made up for her lying about it more than once on the campaign trail. Obama left it alone rather than point out that a lie is a lie is a lie and that Hillary’s approach is to lie whenever she thinks she can get away with a lie - and when found out - to brush it off as if it was just a mistake due to lack of sleep or some other nonsense.

Obama disappointed in repeating his disavowal of Jeremiah Wright’s "objectionable" comments by failing to say exactly which comments he found objectionable. As I pointed out here on March 25, read in context the "goddamn America" and "chickens coming home to roost" comments were not particularly objectionable. He continues to offer a defense of Wright , pointing out that the loop we see playing endlessly on You Tube and Fox News is a caricature of the man’s 30 year career in the Church - and responds to a question about Wright’s love of America by pointing out that he served in the marines. But in saying that he disavows Wright’s "objectionable" comments and making it clear that he is referring to everything on that infamous endless loop, he is taking the easy way out. There’s objectionable stuff there for sure - but there is also stuff that while sounding objectionable, is highly defensible. But what the heck. Nobody’s perfect and sometimes , like any other politician, Obama has to decide that pandering is the better part of valor.

For the most part, this was a forgettable debate, with the nonsensical questions and answers and repetitions of familiar mantras when it came to substantive issues. Except maybe Hillary’s assertion that we would go to war with Iran if Iran attacked Israel. That’s a new twist. More or less "McCainian." At least Obama -albeit hesitantly, kept his comment at the level of considering such an attack "unacceptable" to which we would respond with "appropriate action." But the one thing that lingers in my mind from this debate is the attempt by Gibson and Stephanopoulos - utilizing a female member of Boobus Americanus - to inject a new "Gate" into this year’s election contest - PINGATE!! On a film clip that might rival the Reverend Wright’s endless loop in the annals of video political history, the female BA asked the following of Obama.
I have a question, and I want to know if you believe in the American flag. I am not questioning your patriotism, but all our servicemen, policemen and EMS wear the flag. I want to know why you don't.
The answer to such a "question" of course should be something along the lines of "Well I’m glad that you don’t question my patriotism, but if the day ever comes when we judge the level of each others patriotism on the basis of what jewelry we are wearing, this country will be in bad, bad shape." Instead, Obama launched into a rambling dissertation about how much he reveres the flag and the things he does to show his patriotism. He did finish up by saying that wearing or not wearing a flag pin was a manufactured issue - but by that time it was too late. PINGATE had been created. Charlie and George were so wrapped up in playing "gotcha" with Obama that they forgot to observe that Hillary wasn’t wearing a flag pin and that McCain doesn’t wear one either.

Oh what delicious "Gate" material for the general election. Will Obama claim racial discrimination at voters’ insistence that he can’t be a truly patriotic American if he refuses to wear a flag pin? Will we discover that because he is a secret Muslim who plans to convert the White House into a national mosque if elected, he cannot wear such a pin on religious grounds? Will McCain refuse to wear the pin until all former POW’s are issued pins without cost? Will there be a movement to change the pledge of allegiance from "to the flag and to the Republic for which it stands " to "to the flag and to the flag pin for which it stands?" Will protesters start to burn flag pins? Should flag pin burners be sent to Guantanamo? Will flag pins trump abortion, school prayer and global warming for single issue voters?

I hear that a lot of people are hopping mad at ABC for the way the debate was conducted - but I think maybe we should be grateful to Gibson and Stephanopoulos for clarifying what is really important to American voters - the "chaff" of the issues facing us and the rest of the world - while the "wheat" gets buried in white papers that are too boring to read and usually too complicated to understand. So I’m sure both McCain and Obama will both be wearing custom made American Flag pins as they compete on Dancing With the Stars to see who will be the next President of the United States.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

We’ve finally arrived . It’s the height of the silly season. Hillary Clinton whose joint income with ex-president Bill over eight years is $109 million , says that Barack Obama is an elitist while she - a woman of the people - downs a boilermaker in a local bar. A shot and a beer for the non drinkers in the audience. And some people are actually buying it. I guess we need to be thankful for The Daily Show where such pretentious nonsense is exposed four nights a week. But then not everyone watches or understands The Daily Show, so Barack Obama needs to be careful when he thinks he’s talking only to adults.

If I was advising him on how to avoid giving Hillary ammunition with which to attack him , I would urge him to stop thinking out loud. And if he couldn’t control that habit, I would urge him to hold his breath for thirty seconds every time he felt the need to be analytical - no matter what the subject matter. But above all I would urge him to consider delivering a heavy does of pandering every time he feels the compulsion to utter an uncomfortable truth.

There are times when Obama panders with the best of them - particularly when he is making an appearance where nothing else but pandering is expected or would be acceptable. His recent appearance before the "Compassion Forum" in Pennsylvania was a good example. He followed Hillary on stage at Messiah College and gave all the right answers. Whenever I hear major political candidates answer questions about faith, I have to wonder if they really believe everything they say - but I understand that they have to say them unless they want their candidacy to die at the close of the meeting in question. But most of the time, Obama doesn’t pander - he addresses us as adults - and there are times when he can be brutally candid. He was so at the San Francisco fund raiser where he made the remarks that have haunted him for the past few days - and they were made in front of an appropriate audience where his meaning would have been understood and agreed with. He would never have said it quite the same way in front a an audience of working class Pennsylvanians - but in this day and age - there is virtually nothing you can say anywhere that will not end up being viewed and heard by audiences for whom the remarks were not intended.

I’m sure Obama knew the meaning he wanted to convey with his reference to guns and religion and people who don’t look like us and trade agreements etc. - but pundits from the right and from the left have offered a variety of interpretations. What I took him to mean was something that has repeated itself throughout history. In times of extended economic downturns, people who are most affected - those who lose their jobs because employers move away or close down - or people who have to work low paying, demeaning jobs - maybe two or more such jobs just to get by - or proud people who have to swallow their pride and apply for welfare - tend to turn inward and hew closer to the core of their personal values - which might be religion and gun ownership and hunting - and at the same time, sometimes urged by political demagogues - look for scapegoats to blame for their circumstances - and Obama named a few of them. He could have substituted frustration and anger for "bitter" - and a lot of the people he was talking about would probably have agreed with him. They would have more easily recognized themselves.

But no matter how differently he might have phrased his comments, it wouldn’t have stopped Hillary Clinton from wallowing in the gutter as she desperately tries to derail the man who she sees as trying to rob her of her "entitlement." She’s not only jumping all over Obama at every appearance with her "he’s out of touch" and "he’s an elitist" nonsense. She now has a TV ad running with a handful of recruited Pennsylvania voters saying the same sort of nonsensical things. Or maybe they’re just actors. It’s hard to tell with attack ads. One has to hope that sensible people will see this garbage for what it is. Garbage. Hillary Clinton made up a story out of whole cloth about dodging sniper fire in Bosnia. Pundits had a field day for a while. Obama left it alone. He didn’t jump all over the obvious lie in his stump speeches. He didn’t rush an ad on the air in a matter of hours. While he has responded vigorously to Clinton’s attacks, he has demonstrated that his approach to campaigning reflects his theme of change. A new kind of politics. He has not descended into the gutter with his ads and in his stump speeches - and I hope he will resist the temptation to respond to the Clinton gutter attacks in kind when he debates her tonight in Pennsylvania.

But I would suggest that he at least acknowledge a small measure of Hillary and John McCain’s shortcomings when he once again is forced to defend his remarks to that fundraising audience in San Francisco. For example - "As I’ve said before, I didn’t choose my words as well as I might have - but I was distracted by the sniper fire outside the window and I was having a hard time remembering the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite and how many Sunday’s there’d be in a hundred years."

Thursday, April 10, 2008

I don’t begrudge anyone making as much money as they can as long as they do it honestly. But I have a reaction to the Clintons reported $109 million over a seven year stretch that is a little different from the relatively mild reactions that have come from the world of punditry - including anti Clinton pundits.

Once a president has completed his or her term of office, one would hope that they wouldn’t find themselves in financial straits. For most of us, I think that would apply to all ex-presidents - even the ones who we think have done damage to the country or who have disgraced the office. But there’s a big difference between being supportive of lifetime security for ex-presidents and approving of the idea of the selling of the office once it’s been vacated. Presidents get a handsome pension plus all kinds of additional benefits - see page 4 of this report. Most ordinary people would be tickled pink to have the kind of money and perks we give to our ex-presidents - but for some of them - it doesn’t seem to be enough.

As we can see from the Clinton tax returns, one of he biggest sources of income for Bill after leaving the White House has been speaking fees. Millions over the last eight years for showing up in front of various groups and giving a talk. He’s not running for office any more so he’s not really giving speeches. In truth, he’s not giving much of anything. When he gives his highly paid talks, he’s not providing information that will help his audiences live more productive lives - or giving them glimpses of history that they can’t find anywhere else. What he’s providing is the celebrity of his presence and by extension - the celebrity of the White House. There’s nothing particularly wrong with that as long as the group can afford the outrageous fee that he charges. Where it gets a little bit dicey is when - as in Bill Clinton’s case - it becomes a money making industry. I remember when Ronald Reagan left the White House and went to Japan for a two million dollar speaking fee - a lot of eyebrows were raised and complaints were heard. Maybe it was the size of the one time fee. But Bill has been generating six figure speaking fees for years - and we, the American public - have taken it in stride.

A big chunk of money on the Clinton tax returns came from their book earnings. Both Bill and Hillary are bright people and I would imagine both have some ability with the written word. But best sellers and millions in advances and royalties? It’s the same as the speechmaking. The books sold because of the names above or below the title. It’s the selling of the celebrity that is the presidency in a different way.

As far as I can determine, no other ex-government heads of democratic nations are treated as royally as our ex-presidents, or are in a position to earn the kind of money ex-presidents make - and maybe that description of how we treat them tells us why. American presidents occupy unique roles that other heads of democratic nations do not. Our president is both the chief executive and the symbolic leader. We don’t bow and scrape as he walks into the room but we do play Hail To The Chief. Tony Blair might be able to earn a few dollars giving speeches as an ex-Prime Minister of England - but he doesn’t bring with him the glamour of Buckingham Palace and all its trappings. That’s reserved for the reigning monarch. Our reigning monarchs are our presidents and ex-presidents.

It was interesting to see that the Clintons donated some ten million bucks to "charity" over an eight year period. A pretty hefty amount - but maybe not that much when your gross income in the same period is $109 million. And it isn’t all that generous when you consider that charitable gifts are a deductible item. And it’s even less generous looking when most of your charitable giving is to your own foundation!!

I don’t know how well our other two living ex-presidents have fared financially since leaving the White House, but I doubt that it’s been anything like the Clintons. Jimmy Carter wrote an anti Israel book that probably sold well to Israel haters - but it didn’t bring him multi-millions To his credit, Carter has devoted most of his time as an ex-president to non money making efforts. George Bush Sr. was rich going into the presidency and has probably gotten a lot richer since he was defeated for re-election by Bill Clinton, but there are no indications that he has been raking in big bucks by selling the celebrity of the presidency. Clinton seems to be unique in this respect. Certainly unique among living ex-presidents.

There was speculation that Hillary Clinton had something to hide when she delayed and delayed the release of her tax returns. Maybe she and Bill wanted to hide their wealth - which, for some people, might not sit too well with the idea of her being a champion for the poor and for the middle class. It doesn’t bother me in that sense. Sometimes the more money people have the more they have a sense of noblesse oblige toward the less fortunate of us. But what does bother me is the amount the Clintons have raked in because of who they are and who he was. There’s something unseemly about any ex-president accepting the kind of money they can command for giving an after dinner speech. Or a before dinner speech .I wouldn’t see anything wrong with five or ten grand plus expenses - but honoraria in the six figure range just doesn’t seem to me to be completely "clean." It’s the sort of money that one mighty easily associate with "Tricky Dick" or "Slick Willie" - but it touches a raw spot when its associated with the former "President of The United States if America!"

Friday, April 04, 2008

It’s encouraging to see Barack Obama narrowing Hillary Clinton’s lead in Pennsylvania - or at least her lead in poll numbers. The way these things get reported, it’s as though they were marathon races with actual measurable distances between the lead runner and the rest of the field. But it’s still discouraging to hear about the division along racial lines in that state. So far, it seems, Obama isn’t attracting as many white male voters as he would need to overtake Hillary. Bob Casey might help, but it’s an uphill battle.

A week or two ago, I was watching a news report from somewhere in Pennsylvania. I don’t remember the town but I think it was from a bowling alley - a type of establishment which Senator Obama should decline to visit, no matter what the inducement - although in his defense, I heard someone on the radio explain that most bowling balls available at bowling alleys are designed for right handed bowlers and Obama is left handed. I don’t bowl so I have no idea if this is true or not. The people there were identified as "working class." All in view were males - and according to the reporter, not a single one could be found who planned to vote for Obama. One gentlemen who was interviewed said he had been considering Obama but had been turned off by the Reverend Wright’s comments. This wasn’t someone who had enough interest to seek out and read the context in which these remarks were made - but that is most likely a reflection of the kind of consideration given to candidates by most voters. Which is why we get a George Bush at the national level and a Rod (Governor of Illinois) Blagojevich at the state level. A second who was interviewed briefly on camera - a grizzled, elderly gentleman - was asked if race had any influence on his vote. He looked just a little embarrassed as he hemmed and hawed for a few seconds before admitting that yes, he wouldn’t vote for a black man.

And that’s still where we’re at in the year 2008. No matter what image is projected by Oprah Winfrey and Tiger Woods and Condoleezza Rice, no matter how many statues we may erect to honor the likes of Ernie Banks and no matter what percentage of the black and white population says that race relations have improved in recent years - we are still, in this melting pot of a nation, a separated peoples - separated by race, by religion - by region and by language. And so it is that we have voters who won’t vote for a black man - or a white woman - or a Catholic or a Jew - or a Republican or a Democrat. Not because of what they’ve done or what they stand for - but because of who they are or at least who people think they are. I add that last comment because of the phenomenon of people running for political office changing their names in order to induce people to vote for them. I remember some years ago a black judge in Chicago getting lots of support from Jewish voters because he had a "Jewish sounding" name. He didn’t change it. It just "sounded" Jewish. The voters had no idea who they were voting for.

Almost five years ago, on July 22, 2003 - I wrote a piece titled "Separated By A Single Language" - basically expressing puzzlement at the acceptance of the black English accent as a normal state of affairs - something not questioned or discussed publicly. The closest thing to public discussion of this phenomenon is when there is the occasional criticism of some black person for "talking white." That’s about on a par with the silly discussion that arose in the early days of Obama’s candidacy about whether he was "black enough." But the persistence of that black accent and the fact that it doesn’t seem to be a matter of concern - or at least publicly expressed concern - to either black or white America - shows that the gap between the two ethnicities remains wide.

Obama talks about "bringing us together" but he has a formidable task ahead of him if he should achieve the Presidency. Despite his stirring words at the 2004 Democratic convention , there are indeed Red and Blue States that make up the United States of America and some are as different from each other as distant foreign countries with different laws and languages. I know there are some parts of some states where I wouldn’t feel comfortable sauntering into a local bar for a quiet drink. In some places I wouldn’t even feel safe. Just based on who I am and who they - the locals - are.

If we were gathered together in some part of the world like Eastern Europe instead of the Americas, I could easily envision multiple separatist movements - regional groups of people wanting to set up their own independent nations. Some might want to establish a theocracy. That’s how deep I think the differences are between Americans based on their race and ethnicity and religion and region. The melting pot concept has done little to bridge those differences and in this election year - with the very real possibility of a black skinned man running for and maybe being elected to the highest office in the land - I have no doubt they will become more evident as we get closer and closer to November.

Some of the right wing pundits are mocking Obama, saying that he was supposed to be the candidate who transcended race but now he’s the candidate of racial differences. I can agree and disagree with these pundits. Obama is the quintessential melting pot candidate who defies racial stereotyping - yet, spurred by the nonsense over Reverend Jeremiah Wright, he is someone who has challenged us to confront our narrow prejudices and misconceptions about each other. It’s one of the reasons I support his candidacy. It’s been 44 years since the Civil Rights Act of 1964 - and 40 years since the assassination of Martin Luther King. It’s time that we had the kind of national dialogue that Obama proposes - and it’s time that we had a president who could put the weight and influence of the presidency behind such a dialogue without it being looked at as nothing more than "just politics!!"