Saturday, January 31, 2009

Claire, You Had Me at "Idiots"

"We have a bunch of Idiots on Wall Street who are kicking sand in the face of the American taxpayer." Sen. Claire McKaskill, (D) Missouri

For the past eight years, the behavior of a whole lot of Democrats in the House and Senate has infuriated, exasperated, or disappointed me. Their wimpiness, even in the face of the Bush Administration's unprecedented unpopularity, has been confounding beyond the normal head-scratching.

At nearly every instance, even after their victory in 2006, they've howled and yowled and ranted and raved, and said everything we long-suffering Democrats have wanted to hear--and then they've turned their backs on us and voted against any notion of common sense, against any hint of common good.

They did it in October, 2002, when 26 Democratic senators voted FOR Bush's war in Iraq. They did it again when they caved on the FISA laws, grumbling pitifully little while giving Bush the authority he so craved. And late last year they did it again when they approved hundreds of billions of dollars worth of bank bailouts without asking for either a reckoning or a receipt.

I'm not the only one wondering why Our Good Dems had to wait until Obama sat down in the Oval Office before they could get their guts back. They're an odd bunch. We know that. But every now and then one or more of them will do us proud. Yesterday was Claire McKaskill's day. Her finest hour came in the senate as she lashed out at the "idiots" who actually thought it was okay to reward themselves with huge parties, huge bonuses and huge airplanes paid for by America's taxpayers. (Lord knows where they got that idea.)

Here she is:

The Cap Executive Officer Pay Act of 2009 that McKaskill is hoping will pass is short and oh-so-sweet. Here it is in it's entirety.

So, okay, this makes me very happy. I'm happy. Even though I'm thinking the $400,000 cap, heavy symbolism aside, would seem more like a huge reward than a terrible punishment to most of us.

But let's go back to October 1, 2008 for a minute. Remember the day the bailout vote came up? Only 9 (nine) Democratic senators voted "no", and Claire McKaskill wasn't one of them. So, impassioned as she was, as deliciously pissed as she seemed to be. . .don't we have to wonder if a whole lot of that rage wasn't directed at herself? I mean--what did those senators think the bankers would do with a no-strings, manna-from-heaven windfall like that?

They're money men. They spend. They don't share. So how about remembering that the next time those creepies come a'crawling?


Thursday, January 29, 2009

Two Little Boys, Sittin' in the Mud. . .

There's nothing Chris Matthews likes better than a good fight. That's not my observation alone-- every now and then he has to laugh at himself when he slyly admits that he loves a good verbal battle so much he's been known to instigate one just to keep his addiction going.

Maybe that's why he didn't come to classy, smart Joan Walsh's defense last night when that crude, boorish anachronism known as Dick Armey went after her--I guess for being so far ahead of him he couldn't keep up.

Watch Dick Armey as Joan Walsh speaks, but watch Matthews, too. They're like two little boys listening to the smart lady who's talking way over their heads. They squirm, they wiggle, they grin. . .Matthews because he's sitting right across from Armey, watching his every move, and he knows there's going to be fireworks when Walsh stops.

But keep watching, because toward the end you'll see Bob Herbert stop "Hardball" dead in it's tracks in order to say what Matthews himself should have said the second Armey launched his nutty, sexist attack. (I'm crazy about Bob Herbert, and this is just one reason why.)

And, finally, watch as Matthews realizes that he should have been the grownup there, and only after Bob Herbert brings it to his attention does he then reluctantly admit that Armey was out of line.

I haven't forgotten Matthews' goofy explanation of why Hillary Clinton got where she was. But in case you have, here it is:

Let's face it, "Hardball" is a train wreck and Chris Matthews is the man-child engineer. My only excuse for watching it is. . .that I have no excuse.

But if Joan Walsh and Bob Herbert can stomach him long enough to spend a few minutes on his show, the least I can do is watch.


Tuesday, January 27, 2009

War and Remembrance

Our government... teaches the whole people by its example. If the government becomes the lawbreaker, it breeds contempt for law; it invites every man to become a law unto himself; it invites anarchy.
Louis D. Brandeis

As politicians go, John Conyers is a good man. And, as with so many good people who work passionately toward a more just world, he's had his share of hostile enemies. His ongoing quest for answers about the Bush Administration's murky and undoubtedly illegal maneuverings has earned him a special place in the hearts and minds of that loyal corps of screwballs who still work at protecting Bush's legacy. They'd like to see him six feet under. But he's not going anywhere. He's on a mission, and there are bastions of citizen bloggers who are cheering him on.

I don't know how I missed "Why We Have to Look Back", the column he wrote in the Washington Post last week. I just caught up with it this morning, thanks to those bloggers, and again I have to wonder why something this important hasn't been talked about by the TV pundits, who spent so much time jawing about Rod Blagojevich's hair, the First Lady's dress designers, and Caroline Kennedy's unfortunate over-use of "You know. . .".

Conyers was announcing the release of a 486-page report entitled "Reining in the Imperial Presidency", detailing the many legitimate instances of legal and ethical abuses by the Bush Administration. The report offered these immediate and important suggestions for remedies:

"First, Congress should continue to pursue its document requests and subpoenas that were stonewalled under President Bush. Doing so will make clear that no executive can forever hide its misdeeds from the public.

Second, Congress should create an independent blue-ribbon panel or similar body to investigate a host of previously unreviewable activities of the Bush administration, including its detention, interrogation and surveillance programs. Only by chronicling and confronting the past in a comprehensive, bipartisan fashion can we reclaim our moral authority and establish a credible path forward to meet the complex challenges of a post-Sept. 11 world.

Third, the new administration should conduct an independent criminal probe into whether any laws were broken in connection with these activities. Just this week, in the pages of this newspaper, a Guantanamo Bay official acknowledged that a suspect there had been "tortured" -- her exact word -- in apparent violation of the law. The law is the law, and, if criminal conduct occurred, those responsible -- particularly those who ordered and approved the violations -- must be held accountable."

Such reasonable observations. How could anybody deny their worth? He ended the piece this way:

"Some day, there is bound to be another national security crisis in America. A future president will face the same fear and uncertainty that we did after Sept. 11, 2001, and will feel the same temptation to believe that the ends justify the means -- temptation that drew our nation over to the "dark side" under the leadership of President Bush and Vice President Cheney. If those temptations are to be resisted -- if we are to face new threats in a manner that keeps faith with our values and strengthens rather than diminishes our authority around the world -- we must fully learn the lessons of our recent past."

I don't doubt that a future president will face fear and uncertainty if another 9/11 happens in this country. I differ with the good congressman that the belief that the ends justify the means would draw a future leader to the dark side. From the day George W. Bush gave up on becoming baseball commissioner and ran for president instead; from the day Dick Cheney chose himself as GWB's running mate, those two inhabitants of the dark side burrowed even deeper into their holes. The horrific events of 9/11 gave them the leverage they needed to draw the rest of us into their lair, and damned if they didn't succeed at the worst hornswoggling this country has ever seen.

Now we're all coming into the light again and we find ourselves so dirty, so poor, so exhausted from eight years on the dark side, all we want is a good, hot meal and a siesta in the sun.

But somebody has to go back in and get the bad guys--even if those bad guys are of our own making. I can't do it alone and neither can you, but if Conyers the Dragon Slayer says he can, what fool would stand in his way?


Sunday, January 25, 2009

Tightening the Belts of 80-year-olds

If you read the papers or check out the blogosphere every day, it's a given that you'll read something so foolish it'll take the place of the most foolish thing you read the day before. There are guaranteed foolish things I naturally shy away from--the blabbings of O'Reilly or Limbaugh or Coulter, for instance.

But sometimes I'm just reading the good, old-fashioned news when I'm grabbed by something so insanely wrong, I have to wonder if the world is going topsy-turvy faster than I can take a breath.

Yesterday was one of those days.

The headline read, "Army Stops Retirement Pay for Alaskans in WWII Force". A grabber if I ever saw one. The AP story in the New York Times started this way:

ANCHORAGE (AP) — The Army has decided to cut off retirement pay for veterans of a militia formed to guard the territory of Alaska from the threat of Japanese attack during World War II.

The change means 26 surviving members of the Alaska Territorial Guard — most in their 80s and long retired — will lose up to $557 in monthly retirement pay, a state veterans officer said this week. The payments end Feb. 1.

Now, I failed every math class I ever took, but over the years I've been able to learn the basics of a calculator. My calculator tells me that $557 a month for 26 veterans comes to $173,784 a year.

So let's say all those old gents are 80 years old, and by some miracle all 26 of them make it to 90. My calculator tells me that, at the end of that 10-year span, the government would have had to shell out a rounded-off $1,740,000.

1.7 million dollars. About the cost of annual swanky country club memberships for 10 CEOs.

But here's the next line in the story: Applications for retirement pay from 37 others have been suspended. Oh, my. So now we have (wait a minute, I'm checking it on my calculator) 63 veterans. Okay! Now we're talking real money. The government would have to lay out a whopping $422,000 a year for those old geezers, and an astronomical $4,220,000 over that anticipated 10-year span.

It could be that we can't afford that. It is a lot of money. So I went looking for ways the government spends $4 million dollars. I admit I didn't search too hard, and didn't find much, because, apparently, $4,000,000 is a drop in the bucket. But I did find where they spent a minimum of 10 times that much, more or less, in one year on Public Relations:

The report, from the House Committee on Government Reform (such tired words), was published in January, 2005 and begins this way:

Recently, questions have been raised about the use of taxpayer dollars to fund public relations campaigns. The Government Accountability Office has found that the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy and the Department of Health and Human Services engaged in illegal “covert propaganda” by hiring a public relations firm to produce and disseminate fabricated video news reports. Investigative reporters have disclosed that the Department of Education paid a journalist to promote the No Child Left Behind Act in television and radio appearances and that the Department of Health and Human Services had a contract with a syndicated columnist who promoted the President’s marriage initiative. At the request of Democratic Leader Pelosi, Democratic Whip Hoyer, and Reps. Waxman, Dingell, Obey, Rangel, Miller, Slaughter, Thompson, and DeLauro, this report examines federal spending on public relations contracts. It finds that federal spending for public relations has more than doubled under the Bush Administration. While not all public relations spending is illegal or inappropriate, this rapid rise in public relations contracts at a time of growing budget deficits raises questions about the priorities of the Administration. Specifically, the report finds: • In 2004, the Bush Administration spent over $88 million on contracts with public relations agencies. • The value of federal contracts with public relations agencies has increased significantly over the last four years. In 2000, the last year of the Clinton Administration, the federal government spent $39 million on contracts with major public relations agencies. By 2004, the value of these PR contracts had grown by almost $50 million, an increase of 128%. • An increasing number of PR contracts are being awarded without full and open competition. During the last year of the Clinton Administration, less than 20% of PR contracts were awarded without full and open competition. By 2004, over 40% of PR contracts, worth $37 million in total, were awarded on a noncompetitive basis. • The Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services spent over $94 million on contracts with public relations agencies over the last four years, the most of any federal agency. The three public relations agencies that received the most in federal contracts over the last four years are Ketchum Communications ($97 million), Matthews Media Group ($52 million), and Fleishmann Hillard ($41 million).

Wow! A little more than pocket change there. So how about this? What if the government took a new tack and steered the course toward honesty and fair play? Toward shunning scoundrels and praising humble heroes? Toward (never can say this enough) working for the common good? Wouldn't we all become the greatest Public Relations force this country has ever seen? And wouldn't it be priceless and string-free?

It could work. They could start by slapping the hands of anybody who would even think of taking those tiny pensions away from that small band of elders who--let it be said--served our country without taking a penny in return.


Saturday, January 24, 2009

Toward a More Perfect Musicale

What a lot of blab about nothing. Please, no more about Yo Yo and company hoodwinking the American public on Inauguration Day. You want to talk about hoodwinking? Let's talk about the last eight years.

Here's how I felt as I watched master artists Yo Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman, Anthony McGill, and Gabriela Montero perform"Air and Simple Gifts," by the great John Williams: It couldn't be more perfect.

Here's how I felt when I heard that these true, flawless musicians weren't performing live, but had actually pre-recorded it in a studio the day before: So what? All the better. I wouldn't have wanted to miss a single note wafting away in the wind. I wouldn't have wanted my mood shaken for even one tiny second by an off-note. Those things stay with me.

Which is why, when I thought about it some more (And how could I help it, with all that flack?) I came to this: Oh, how I wish the great Aretha had done the same thing.

When I heard that Aretha Franklin was going to sing "My Country Tis of Thee" at the ceremonies, I conjured up a vision of the glorious Marian Anderson singing the same song in front of the Lincoln Memorial at Eleanor Roosevelt's behest after the snooty DAR shunned her. Then I thought of the remarkable Mahalia Jackson (because I wanted Mahalia to be there), and finally, I could hear in my head Aretha's stunning performance of "Nessun Dorma" , when she took over, on twenty minutes notice, for an ailing Luciano Pavarotti.

And at her first words, I closed my eyes and sighed. Ah, Aretha, my hometown girl, you've done it again. But then it came. . .

I'm not going to be harsh here, because I love that woman, but I challenge anyone to tell me truthfully that that was one of Aretha's finest moments. It was not, and even Aretha had to know it. Yes, surely, it came from the heart, but on that day of perfect beginnings, was that enough? Think how much more powerful that piece would have been if Aretha had been able to work it out in a recording studio instead of fighting a losing battle against the wind and cold. There's something to be said for do-overs.

(Would that Barack Obama and John Roberts had rehearsed a little and opted out of doing that oath thing live. Talk about your sour notes. I'm going to be remembering that one, too.)

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Two new beginnings - One VERY important

Obama swearing in - New York Times photo
Today is January 20, 2009. Inauguration day for Barack Obama, and it can't have come soon enough. It's true that he's been defacto president since November, 2008, when George W. Bush unofficially, without fanfare or hesitation, turned the job over to him, but today it became official. What a day it's been! They're estimating the crowds at 2 million strong, a sight unseen on any Presidential First Day in modern history.

Obama's speech, so anticipated by us all, was anticlimactic and, at first hearing, a bit of a disappointment. It didn't soar. It didn't sing. The soundbites were few and far between. But, as I think about it now, I realize that what he was going for was resonance. I don't remember the words, but I feel the feeling. What he said was that we're in trouble, we'll need to work hard to get out of it, and if we'll do all that we can do, so will he. He told the world that we were back to being honest and sincere and that they could trust us again. He told those who would want to harm us to back off. But most importantly, he told the Fat Cats that their glory days are over. As I said, resonance.

Update: Obama has just gotten out of the first car in the motorcade, and the non-stop screaming has escalated to unhealthy decibels. I am not the only one who wishes he would just stay in the car. Not that I don't want to see him outside, smiling and waving--looking, not surprisingly, presidential. I just don't want anything to happen to him. The secret service men look nervous and that's not a good sign. I'll be glad when they get to the viewing stand, where they'll be safe.

It's 4:30 PM and the parade is running very late. It's beginning to get dark and we're still at the motorcade. No sign of the bands yet. It's about 30 degrees in DC, with a wind chill making it 10 degrees colder. Michelle isn't dressed nearly warm enough, but she's smiling and waving as though it were a summer day. They've been in and out of the car a couple of times now. It's just too cold, but I understand Obama's sense of duty. Millions of citizens are lining the route and he feels obliged to acknowledge them. I want to remind him of what happened to William Henry Harrison, our short-lived ninth president, who died of pneumonia a month after standing in the snow, giving the longest inaugural speech ever.

But I mentioned two beginnings in the title. That's because this is also the day that I'm launching this blog. I've been thinking about it for a long time, and even had a couple of false starts, but I chose this day to finally take the hard step after hearing Barack Obama's call to duty.

The past eight years have been worse than any nightmare scenario the horrormeisters could have come up with. Through it all, I hid behind screen names, railing against Bush and his cohorts, zinging my zingers and feeling good about it. The zingers, that is. There was nothing else to feel good about. No matter what we did, Bush was going to be Bush, Cheney was going to be Cheney, and the world as we knew it was going to be out of our control.

I have no grand illusions about a rapid return to health for this country, just as I have no illusions about the impact my words will make in the overall scheme of things. I'll admit that I'm overwhelmed right now with the events of the day. I'm feeling more than a little inarticulate and possibly even shy about expressing how it feels to have our country back. It may not be the best day to start a blog after all.

But start it I have, and now I'll give this day over to the Inauguration of Barack Hussein Obama, America's new president. The bands are playing, the sun is setting and all's right with the world. For now.