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Monday, December 22, 2008

The Ryan Clemency Petition, the Presidential Inauguration, the Rick Warren Selection and Interest Rates…

My apologies to anyone who reads this blog regularly. I was too busy to record any thoughts last week, so I’ll be covering two or three subjects today.

When I last wrote about imprisoned former Illinois Governor George Ryan on December 12, 2008, I was being supportive of Senator Dick Durbin’s appeal to President Bush to grant him clemency and let him get home for Christmas. I’m still supportive of the effort but now I’m disgusted with Ryan’s disingenuous "apology" for past misdeeds. I know he wants to get out of jail. Of course he does. He isn’t a hardened criminal. He was a pharmacist before he went into politics. He lived what might be called a "soft" life. Jail must be hell for him and people like him. But the sudden change of heart has no ring of truth to it. Throughout his trial and as he entered through the gates of the federal penitentiary, he insisted that his conscience was clear - that he didn’t believe that he had committed crimes. Now, in a "private" letter that somehow became public, he is apologizing to the people of Illinois for "letting them down" and to the Willis family who lost six children in an accident involving a truck driver who had pain a bribe to get his commercial license under Ryan’s watch as Illinois Secretary of State. After years of insisting that there was no way he could be held responsible for the death of those children, he now says that they - the surviving Willis parents, "deserved better." Well of course they did - but there was also nothing Ryan could have done or not done that would have changed their fate.

What’s unfolding now is reminiscent of what happens in so many prison story movies. The wrongly
imprisoned man is denied parole for the second or third or fourth time because he shows no remorse and doesn’t admit or apologize for his "crime." If he’d just show remorse, maybe the parole board would give him a break. And different movies play out in different ways. In some, the stubborn innocent swears that he will die in prison before he will admit to a crime he never committed - and if he’s the hero, he gets out of jail anyway. And in other scenarios, the wrongly imprisoned inmate, concluding that the only way he will ever get parole is to "confess" and "apologize" - does exactly that and is granted parole, only later to prove that he was wrongly convicted in the first place.

I’m not saying that George Ryan was wrongly convicted - only that he’s acting like one of those movie characters - the one that will say whatever he thinks he needs to say to help him get out of jail. And now the Willis parents are adding to the "B" movie atmosphere of this whole affair - saying that they want to meet with Ryan in jail, look him in the eye so that they can determine the sincerity of his "apology" and so that they can forgive him!!!

I don’t think Bush will grant Ryan clemency - and for sure he won’t get it from an incoming president. But he would have stood a better chance if he had stayed silent while others petitioned on his behalf. Clemency was never going to be dependent on the merits of his case or on admissions of guilt and expressions of remorse. All that the Ryan "letter of apology" reveals is that the former governor is capable of being disingenuous - something that we all knew anyway. I was sympathetic to his plea before this letter surfaced - but a lot less so today.

Twenty nine days to inauguration day and every day that we get closer to the grand event, I become more and more convinced that we need a royal family. I’m old enough to remember the coronation of Queen Elizabeth - and from what I remember of the details of that event, it didn’t hold a candle to what’s about to unfold in Washington on January 20th.

There’s no question that the inauguration of a new president is a major event in the life of this country - but does it need to be the super bowl, the academy awards, D-Day, VJ-Day and a royal coronation all wrapped up in a single event? Alerts are being broadcast about the difficulties one might encounter being in Washington on that day as though it is or will be a war zone!! If you’re a mere citizen that is. Not a hotel room to be had. Not a cab to be hailed. Not a public toilet available to relieve your urge to purge. No backpacks, strollers , umbrellas and a host of other items banned from anywhere close to inaugural activities. Very little to indicate that we live in a democracy in which ordinary people have just elected a new government. But everything imaginable to indicate that something akin to the coronation of a King for Life is about to take place.

Since our beginning, the roles of chief executive and national symbol have been combined in one individual - adding to the idea that the President of the United States is some sort of exalted individual with inherited powers above and beyond those of political leaders in other democracies that have a separate individual with the title and responsibilities of a national symbol. The British Parliamentary system comes to mind of course. Prime ministers of England are not thought of or treated as "exalted" figures. There’s no British version of "Hail to the Chief" for British Prime Ministers. When pomp and ceremony is called for , the royal family is available. I know the reason we are not today a loyal member nation of the British empire can be mostly attributed to our founding fathers’ decision to eschew all forms of royalty from our form of government - but maybe, when we broke away from King George lll, we should have created a substitute office to represent us all in ceremonial matters - maybe someone to run on a ticket with presidential and vice presidential candidates as "ceremonial president."

I don’t know about you, but I think the idea of having a ceremonial head of state and getting rid of inauguration pomp and circumstance is a more appropriate way of honoring and celebrating our democracy.

Probably a hell of a lot cheaper too.

Still on the subject of the inauguration, count me as one who is disappointed at the selection of Rick Warren to give the invocation prayer at the royal event. President Elect Obama is defending the choice as typifying his expressed desire to reach out to all corners of our society - to make room for everyone under the national tent - to respect ideas that we don’t necessarily agree with - to be tolerant of all points of view, particularly religious points of view. Sure - that’s exactly why he chose Warren - to demonstrate what kind of people he wants us all to be. In selecting Rick Warren, he’s "reaching out" to evangelicals. An example if you will of the "change" that he’s been promising.

It’s change all right. A concerted effort to lure votes of evangelicals away from their traditional home and move them over to the Democratic column. It’s purely a political move and I think it’s a bad one. Maybe Obama won a few more evangelicals than a Democratic candidate usually wins in presidential elections - but their votes didn’t make a significant contribution to the final totals. He didn’t need evangelical votes to win and I think that’s a good thing.

Religion and politics are of course intertwined. No one can run for president without professing some sort of religious faith. We’re supposed to have a separation of church and state, but that separation becomes blurred during presidential campaigns. People of strong religious beliefs - and that’s a description that fits evangelicals - will vote for the presidential candidate whose views on certain topics are the closest to theirs - or perhaps are less in opposition to theirs. And if evangelicals become strong enough to swing close elections - that becomes dangerous. Think about it for a minute. How different are evangelical beliefs from those of theocracies - nations that we consider our enemies, run by people who we more or less think of as madmen? Yes, evangelicals have a different faith. They’re Christians - the nut cases are Muslims. But apart from the specifics - both would rather have a theocracy than a democracy - and the nuts have already achieved that.

A smart politician knows that he has to respect the power of evangelical voters, so he doesn’t want to appear to ignore them or not acknowledge their legitimacy and the legitimacy of their beliefs. But if that smart politician wants to steer a course that keeps religious beliefs, particularly extreme religious beliefs from being too decisive a factor in elections, he’s going to avoid the appearance of openly courting their vote strictly on the basis of their religion,. Doing so could have two undesirable outcomes - inadvertently strengthening the political power of the extremists while turning off supporters who don’t share their extreme beliefs.

It’s possible that Obama is accomplishing both of these things with the selection of Rick Warren to give the inaugural invocation. It was bad enough when Obama submitted himself to questioning by Warren in front of an evangelical audience during the presidential campaign - something he wasn’t able to refuse to do unless McCain had joined him in turning down the "invitation" - and there was no way that was going to happen with evangelicals considered part of the Republican "base." But he could have chosen anyone he wanted to for the honor of joining him on the inaugural dais . The best choice would have been someone not considered to be controversial. Not someone who equates abortion with the holocaust. Not someone who believes that natural disasters are the result of "sin." Not someone who doesn’t believe in evolution. Not someone who believes that Christianity is the true religion - and the rest of us are headed straight for hell. He might as well have chosen Jeremiah Wright to offer the inaugural prayer for all the "reaching out" that will be accomplished by choosing Rick Warren. In my view, he’s chosen badly - a big disappointment for one who has been and continues to be a strong supporter of Barack Obama.

Finally - while I was concentrating on other things, the Fed lowered interest rates last week. Sneaky Feds. Now banks can loan each other money overnight and it’ll only cost a quarter of a percentage point in interest. And, like all of the previous key rate cuts that have been made since it stood at 5.5% in September of 2007, it is doing and will be doing not one damn bit of good. Of course you might get an argument from people who are refinancing or trying to refinance their mortgages at a more attractive rate - but those people have been trying to do that anyway and it isn’t much help getting a lower interest rate on your mortgage if you’ve lost your job and the only security you had other than employment was some interest bearing investment that just got cut down to almost nothing.

I’m no economist but I don’t think I have to have expertise in what many consider to be a voodoo science to conclude that lowering interest rates is NOT the magic bullet that some members of economic royalty consider it to be. The Fed might as well cut the rate to zero - maybe even create reverse interest rates. Banks will PAY overnight borrowers an incentive percentage to induce them to borrow. Yes it sounds crazy - but with the financial world in turmoil and our economy in a tailspin, maybe it will take something just as crazy to snap us out of it.

The Fed members can stroke their beards and look wise and worried all they like, but the billions of bail out money isn’t loosening the purse strings of big banks - except perhaps to pay out bonuses and hold parties - and it isn’t stemming the flow of job losses - which seem to be growing exponentially. At the same time - while the interest rate cuts haven’t loosened those purse strings - while money isn’t flowing to would be start up companies or to small businesses struggling to stay afloat - witness the debacle of Republic Windows - States and Cities struggling to meet their expenses in an era of diminishing revenues, are receiving less and less of those revenues from interest bearing investments.

I don’t have any magic bullet suggestions to make myself. As I said, I’m no economist. I don’t practice voodoo. But my reaction to last week’s rate cut from the Fed is what it would have been had I been bloggoing last week and commented upon it then. Ho hum. Or in the word (singular) of Darth Vador - recently masquerading as vice president Dick Cheney - "SO??"

We’ll come out of this recession - maybe after it becomes a certified depression - but I suspect that only economists will be able to look back and assert that all the Fed rate cuts made a measurable contribution to the recovery. And I suspect that though they’ll say it, they won’t understand it any better than we mere mortals.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

It may seem a little odd to be lending support to the idea of commuting George Ryan’s jail sentence to time served on the day after the sitting governor of the State of Illinois gets arrested on charges of conspiracy to commit crimes- but that’s just what I’m doing in today’s comments. First a quick word about the Blagojavich arrest. I know that everyone accused of a crime is entitled to be presumed innocent until a judge or jury finds otherwise - but this is one guy who needs to go directly to the psychiatric wing of the nearest jail without pausing to pass go or collect $200. Blago isn’t just a crooked politician. He’s a crooked politician operating with at least six cards less than a full deck. Compared to him, Ryan was a veritable saint. Which isn’t why I support the idea of clemency for our currently incarcerated ex- governor.

Whatever crimes Ryan committed while he was governor and before that secretary of state - he didn’t manage to enrich himself. He’s lost his state pension - and from everything I’ve read, he has no investments other than his house - so when he does get out - at age 75 if his sentence is commuted - and at age 80 if not, he’ll be living on social security. If he manages to stay alive for another five years. So I agree with Senator Dick Durbin that the former governor’s life has been ruined. He has nothing left but to live out whatever years he has left in disgrace. He has an aging wife who needs his help, so what is to be gained by keeping him in jail? He’s no danger to anyone and he didn’t cause grievous harm to anyone while he served as an elected official. Or did he? That’s the question for which those who vehemently oppose any reduction in his sentence have an unequivocal answer - and the leaders of the "throw away the key" crowd with whom I have disagreement, are the Chicago Tribune editorial board and Tribune columnist John Kass.

Although Ryan wasn’t convicted of murder or involuntary manslaughter or any other crime relating to the cause of bodily harm, he has been tried and convicted in the press of causing the death of six children in a horrible crash on a Wisconsin expressway that involved a truck driver who had secured a commercial driving license by paying a bribe while Ryan was Secretary of State. Apparently bribing driving license examiners was a common practice while Ryan held that office. As I recall, it wasn’t unheard of when I got my driver’s license a thousand years ago. I didn’t have to pay anyone but I heard stories of those who did. Although Ryan was never accused of any crime directly related to that fatal crash, it was there in the courtroom throughout his corruption trial. And all over the pages of the Chicago Tribune. And whenever columnist John Kass wrote about the trial, he was sure to include a mention of the death of the six Willis children. Now the Tribune editorial board and John Kass are opposing clemency for Ryan and in both cases - on the editorial page and in the Kass column - the death of those children has again been mentioned as though it was one of the crimes for which Ryan is serving time.

According to news reports, the crash occurred because a piece of the truck that the illegal license holder was driving, was dangling dangerously and was about to fall off. It is alleged that other drivers tried to warn him, but that he didn’t understand what they were saying because he spoke and understood only Spanish. Federal law says that truck drivers have to know English to obtain a commercial driver’s license - but this driver got his license anyway and his lack of English language skill is being blamed as the direct cause of the accident and Ryan was and is blamed indirectly because the non English speaking driver got that license under his watch. For the want of a nail the shoe was lost etc etc. Thus Ryan should be blamed for the death of those kids. Q.E.D. Which at the very least is convoluted reasoning.

For eight months out of the year, I have a crew of gardeners who come and mow my lawn and trim bushes and generally clean up. They arrive in a truck pulling a large trailer and not one of them speaks a word of English. The owner of the landscaping company speaks enough English to get by, but not one of his workers, including the ones who drive his trucks. I have to assume that whoever does the driving has a legitimate driving license - as do the thousands of other non English speaking Hispanics who drive on Illinois roads. And I have to assume that this is O.K. with the Secretary of State of the State of Illinois, because Illinois Rules of the Road publications are available from that office in Spanish. The point is that the accident that resulted in the death of six children had no direct relationship to the legitimacy of the driver’s license of the truck driver involved in the crash. Yet because he had paid a bribe to get the license that he perhaps could have obtained legitimately at one of the motor vehicle facilities where bribes were not being solicited, Ryan was blamed for the deaths.

The Chicago Tribune and columnist Kass are not the only ones objecting to Senator Durbin’s request for a presidential commutation of Ryan’s sentence. A local Republican congressman is against it. So is the Democratic Illinois Attorney General. But they are the only ones that include the death of the Willis children in the body of their written objections - as though those deaths were an issue to be considered when weighing the pros and cons of commuting his sentence to time served. At the moment, I would think the chances of a commutation plea being successful aren’t looking too rosy - if only because one of the people who has voiced support for Durbin’s plea is one Rod Blagojevich!!

In the interest of full disclosure I have to say that I voted for George Ryan - twice. That isn’t to say that I approved of the actions for which he was convicted and sentenced - but I thought of them as being more the old fashioned way of doing business in Illinois rather than some sort of masterminded criminal activity - and I didn’t agree with the prosecution’s assertion that Illinois taxpayers were severely harmed by them. Still, you’d have thought that Blagojevich would have understood what the new rules were and would have run things accordingly - but then as I noted above, this is someone with a brain not connecting on all cylinders.

But my main point in writing these comments is to repeat my objection - voiced here before - to the Chicago Tribune , John Kass and others, convicting George Ryan of being responsible for the death of six children without the benefit of a trial. It is unfair and the accusation is false. And it should not be an issue to be considered by those who will be recommending a yes or no decision to President Bush.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Anyone who follows Israeli politics knows what a crazy quilt system they have. They have anywhere from 15 to 20 parties involved in national elections and any party getting as much as two percent of the vote can place a representative in the Knesset. Israelis don’t vote for individuals - just for a party. With this nutty system there’s almost never one party that wins a sufficient majority to form a government - so the party that finishes up with the most votes has to put together a coalition - which often includes parties that won the tinniest fraction of the overall vote. You sometimes wonder how they manage to survive as a democracy and are able to change governments relatively smoothly with such a cockamamie system. Can you imagine what our elections would be like if we had to deal with the Israeli system? The election would be held, the votes counted, and no party would emerge with enough votes to be able to declare itself the winner - so whichever party won the most votes would have to go to work to put together the elements of a new government - a task that could take weeks - maybe as long as 77 days - and in the meantime there would be a lame duck government running the country.

Well of course we don’t have that kind of system - but we do have similarities that are - in my humble opinion - just as cockamamie. You’d think that in a rational world - and in a democratic society -that once a national election is over and a winner declared, there’d be a new government ready to take over. The old guard would exit graciously and the new crowd would move in - the two groups nodding to each other politely as they passed by on the White House lawn.. A smooth, seamless transition. So smooth that in a complicated world where crises could erupt at any moment, our involvement or relationship to those crises would be affected not one whit by the change in our government. Except of course that our government would not have been changed - it would only be in the process of being formed in preparation for a change. We would be undergoing an "Israeli moment" - as we are now experiencing in the count down to January 20, 2009.

Barack Obama keeps telling us that we only have one president at a time - but that’s only technically correct. In reality we have two presidents - an old one keeping things running with a caretaker government while a new one puts the new government together and begins to set the policy basics of his administration . I’m not sure what you’d call this intermediate period of time - other than confusing. We could of course call it the "period of punditry." As each member of the new government is selected or as individual selections appear to be imminent - .pundits and panels of pundits fill the airways and newspaper and magazine pages with endless speculation about who will be chosen - why they are qualified or not qualified and what hidden meanings we should glean from various selections. It’s almost like a second round of the election - with confirmation hearings yet to come on the ministerial selections.

Although the Bush administration is in a "winding down" mode, we’re not exactly without leadership. If some critical event occurs that requires an immediate presidential decision, we have someone in office who can make that decision. Nonetheless, this "no man’s land" period of limbo between a national election and the assumption of power by a newly elected president and his cabinet members has to qualify as a routine period of concern. It would be far better if the new president could take over in a much shorter time - say a week after the election has been decided. We could do away with the casting of electoral votes - or have them cast immediately - maybe by e-mail. And if we couldn’t do that, maybe we could pick up on Jeb Bush’s latest idea - and have a "shadow government" in place and ready to take over before any election is even held. A permanent shadow government that’s in place throughout the entire term of the administration in power.

That’s the parliamentary method practiced in England and it works well there. Whenever there’s a change in that government - from Conservative to Labour (yes, that's how they spell it) or - as is likely in their next election - from Labour to Conservative, the voters know in advance who will be filling major governmental posts , because the party not in power maintains a "shadow government." If the Conservatives win the next election, David Cameron will become Prime Minister and other ministerial posts will be filled by Conservative M.P.’s who already hold those posts in the shadow government. There’ll be no speculation about who will be picked for what job and there’ll be no surprises revealed by "vetting." And best of all there’s no need for extended punditry about any of these issues following a national election - for which the British public must be eternally grateful - particularly those who have visited these shores during our presidential election season.

Of course the drawback in Jeb Bush’s idea is the business of primaries. You can’t very well have a shadow government unless you know who your party’s presidential nominee will be - but you could have something like it without calling it a shadow government so that Republicans could speak with one voice on specific issues. That would call for a new way to look at political party structure and perhaps the reintroduction of the "smoke filled rooms" with insiders picking the major players. You’d still have to have primaries. Messy at it is, that’s become the established way of picking presidential candidates . But if the shadow government concept could be established - and if members of the party out of power found it working to their advantage - a strong presidential nominee could emerge before the primary season even began - and we cold be spared the sight of all those presidential wannabes displaying their egos for months on end.

But the change that would be most desirable would be to shorten the time between the known outcome of a presidential election and the swearing in of a new president. The shorter the time, the less vulnerable we would be to fast moving world events. The first inauguration day - that of George Washington, was set for March 4, giving states nearly four months to cast their ballots. With information moving by horseback, it made sense in 1789. The twentieth amendment changed it to January 20- and while we weren’t confined to horses to move information in 1933, perhaps a 77 day interval was appropriate for a slower time in history. But it makes little sense in the twenty first century. Any newly elected president worth his salt already knows who he wants as his cabinet members way before November 4 - and there’s no way that a sitting president needs 77 days to move out of the White House.

On April 1, 1997, the British voting public went to the polls and substituted a Labour majority for the ruling Conservative party. The turnout among eligible voters was 71.3% - the lowest in years. We should have such a "low" turnout. But more instructive to us is what happened after all the votes had been counted. Conservative party Prime Minister John Major resigned and Tony Blair became the new Prime Minister on April 3,1997!! Note the date. Two days after the election. One government out and a new one in. There were no known pundit suicides, no riots in the streets and the London stock exchange opened and closed that day without incident.

We got the basics of our common law from the mother country and in some ways improved on them. But then we put together that darned constitution - something the mother country doesn’t have, making it difficult for us to make rational changes in the way we conduct ourselves when they scream out for change. But we can change if there’s a will. All we need is another amendment to that impediment of a constitution. Who would argue with shortening the time between a presidential election and the swearing in of a new president? So let this humble blog be the first plea for a new amendment changing the time between election and inauguration to one week or less. Congress take note.