Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

30 January 2008

Double Crossers

The Clinton campaign has done a remarkable trick. In a less than four weeks, it has committed no less than three double crosses. Two undermined deeply held principles by which Democrats once distinguished themselves from Republicans. The last reneged on a solemn promise of the Clinton campaign.

The first double-cross was voter suppression. Remember why Alberto Gonzales had to go as attorney general? He supervised the firing of Republican prosecutors. Why were they fired? They had resisted orders to waste time prosecuting alleged “voter fraud”—a code word for voting by the poor and minorities. In other words, they had resisted orders to betray their professional judgment and to suppress citizens’ votes.

Until recently, suppressing “undesirable” voting was a strategy belonging to Karl Rove and his political commissars. But not any more. In the last several weeks, the Clinton campaign and its fellow travelers have tried to suppress voting by young people in Iowa and by caucus goers in Nevada. Their turn to the Dark Side of voter suppression involved political action, legal action and literally closing the doors. It was a double cross not only against the Democratic Party, but against democracy itself.

The second double cross involved racism. For several decades, it has been an article of faith among Democrats that only Republicans “play the race card.” Only they exploit the vestiges of human tribalism and Civil-War resentment to get people to vote against their own economic interests.

That’s what Nixon did. He developed the so-called “Southern strategy”—using white Southerners’ resentment and racism to give Republicans the presidency for twenty out of the last twenty-eight years.

In order to form a more perfect party, we Democrats suffered defeat after defeat. We opened our arms to equality and made Martin Luther, King, Jr., our hero. We placed our bets on the future, not the past.

As a result, nearly all racists have become Republicans (although not all Republicans are racists). We Democrats believe at our core than racism is morally, socially, economically, and politically wrong. So, apparently, do most Americans today.

But not all Democrats any more. In the last two weeks the Clinton campaign and Bill himself have “played the race card” not once, but twice. They sought to define Barack Obama as a “black” candidate, rather than what he is: a candidate of mixed race who appeals to a broad range of Americans. They tried—and are still trying—to divide Latinos from African-Americans on racial lines, despite the fact that both have common economic interests and common grievances as neglected communities. Billary are not only exploiting racism; they are fostering it.

I don’t for minute believe that Hillary or Bill is a racist. But as I’ve written before, that is precisely what makes their double-cross so despicable. They are betraying their own and their party’s principles—for which so many sacrificed so much for so long—just for their own personal political glory. There is no conceivable policy or social interest that their betrayal will advance, only their own ambition.

The last double-cross is much simpler. Any crook or drug dealer would understand it: you give your word and then take it back when doing so might give you an advantage.

Like every other Democratic campaign, Billary’s subscribed to a simple remedy. Having primaries at all requires someone to make rules. The Democratic party decided on certain timing rules to maintain order in our most chaotic primary season ever. Michigan and Florida flouted those rules, so the party decided that their primary votes wouldn’t count. Every presidential campaign agreed.

Parties’ rules used to mean something in politics. But not any more. After promising to let Michigan’s and Florida’s illegal primaries remain “beauty contests” without political impact, Billary campaigned there. Their campaign now will make a full court press to count those illegal votes, despite their solemn promises to the contrary, on which the whole country relied. It doesn’t seem to bother either Bill or Hillary that their opponents played by the rules and didn’t campaign in either state. They don’t want fair play. They just want to win.

“Principles, promises and rules are for suckers!” Isn’t that what Billary are saying?

Yet think a bit. Isn’t that precisely why the whole country despises George W. Bush? He broke his campaign promises, to be a “uniter, not a divider,” with a “humbler” foreign policy. He ignored the rule of law. He violated the Geneva Convention and the Bill of Rights with Guantánamo and torture. He used “signing statements” in an attempt to override Congress’ power to make laws that he himself had signed. And he ignored his own party’s most cherished principles: budgetary discipline, small government, and a cautious and prudent foreign policy.

We have nearly lost our national soul—let alone our security, economy, sense of purpose, and international credibility—because we put a double-crosser in the White House. Now some Democrats want our own double-crossers as an antidote.

A basic rule of human nature is older and stronger than our nation and our Constitution. It holds that people who cheat will do so again.

Based on this universal truth, I can make a prediction. If Billary reach the White House, they will take to the “imperial presidency” like ducks to water. As folks who don’t think rules or principles apply to them, they will be right at home in the world of secret budgets, covert actions, secret surveillance, signing statements, and congressional investigations that go nowhere while the executive thumbs its nose at Congress. Hillary has already told us that her plans to fight Al Qaeda in Pakistan, if any, must remain secret, because we children are too naïve and impressionable to understand. With all his self-restraint, Bill will be ecstatic.

So there will be serious scandals, serious mistakes and serious lies, because having our own cheats in the White House will be no substitute for restoring honor and virtue. If you don’t like our democracy now, wait until you have to rely on the likes of Mitch McConnell, Jon Kyle and Rush Limbaugh—the only opposition there will be—to stand up for honesty, fairness and justice.

So I’ll say again what I said in an earlier post. I will vote for Hillary only if her opponent is Mitt, and then only because disaster might arrive more quickly if he wins. If Hillary wins, disaster will surely come, but it will come more slowly.

We Boomers are old enough that we might escape the worst of it: corruption of democracy, national decline, the impact of global warming and oil running out, and maybe a terrorist nuke or two in our cities. The young won’t be so lucky. That’s why they support Obama. They know their welfare, prosperity, civil rights, and maybe their lives, are on the line. With that much at stake, they want someone they can trust. Maybe we Boomers should, too.



Note: the following essay, originally posted on January 27, 2008, was inadvertently deleted on January 31. What follows is a shorter version of the original essay. It makes a nice contrast with the tale of duplicity posted immediately above. Links to the following essay had to be modified, and some may still be inoperative, but the permalink at the end should work.

“Virtue” is an outmoded word. I can’t remember the last time I heard it used orally, except in common phrases like “by virtue of . . .” It sounds vaguely Victorian, and folks under thirty reading this post may have to look it up.

Plato and Socrates were no strangers to the word. Plato thought it the key to a healthy public life and a good and just society. Socrates got himself condemned to death for running around the Acropolis asking everyone he could find, “What is virtue?”

You can take Socrates’ incessant questioning in several ways. Some think he was trying to expose the word as a vapid abstraction, devoid of specific meaning and therefore useless. Others say he was trying to show that everyone has a different “take” on what “virtue” is. He was, they say, proving that “virtue” is “culturally relative.”

But there’s a third interpretation of Socrates’ badgering. Some say he was trying to infuse the term with specific meaning. He was forcing everyone to think hard about the personal qualities needed for effective leadership in a democratic society.

We Americans cling to the “rule of law” and the notion of “government of laws, not of men.” But those phrases are goals, not descriptions of human nature, far less confident predictions of human action. They are talismans that we grip in our sweaty hands as we skirt the graveyards of hubris, tyranny and corruption.

After seven years of Dubya, we know that now. Our Bill of Rights lies frayed and forgotten in the dust because of the personal failings of one man (or two, if you count Cheney).

Our tragedy is not an accident. Like the Greek and Roman constitutions, our so-called “democratic” Constitution gives our president dictatorial power in time of war. It tries to limit that power to intelligence, the military, and foreign relations. But within those spheres presidential power is nearly absolute.

We are now facing what many call a “generational” war. It is likely to last at least as long as the Cold War, which went on for almost half a century. And the type of war we are facing confuses foreign and domestic affairs because the enemy may lurk among us. As long as that war continues, our liberty, dignity and prosperity—as well as our survival—will depend on the virtue of the men and women who lead our nation.

So it makes sense to emulate Socrates and probe the meaning of “virtue” in the twenty-first century.

We can quickly eliminate a few things that virtue is not. It is not “experience.” Cheney and Rumsfeld taught us that. They each had lots of experience, but our souls cringe when we think of them as symbols of our nation. As we ponder what they said and did in our name, we feel shame.

Nor is “judgment” part of “virtue.” Judgment is a tactical matter, one’s response to an issue of the moment. Good judgment springs from deeper virtues like humility, wisdom and patience. Our Founders had the good judgment to insert checks and balances in our Constitution because they had these deeper virtues. They were humble and wise enough to understand the fallibility of men and laws, including themselves and their own work product. That’s why they encouraged amendment.

So what is “virtue”? As Socrates gave his life to show, it is no one thing. It is a constellation of slippery, hard-to-identify personal qualities. It takes as many discrete forms as there are souls among us. Each of us has some, but some of us have more than others.

The trick is not to define “virtue” conclusively, but to assess who has more—especially among candidates for leadership. At times like the present, that trick may be essential to our survival.

Since the days of Plato and Socrates, nothing fundamental has changed in human nature. We are still the same flawed creatures, fallible blends of emotion and reason. Our electronic appliances aid our communication, but they cannot manufacture virtue. And our modern weapons and interdependence have made virtue all the more important.

Our Boomers’ parents knew what virtue was. They survived the Great Depression and beat back totalitarian militarism. They did it with humility, patience, fortitude, determination, wisdom, self-discipline, self-sacrifice, and self-restraint. When they won, they treated defeated Japan and Germany with wisdom, compassion, generosity, mercy and justice—more than either had a right to expect. As a result, those nations have become beacons of civilization and the world’s second and third largest economies, respectively. That’s virtue!

But we Boomers didn’t listen to our parents. We were the first generation in history freed in large numbers from the pressures of both want and war. We enjoyed the greatest and most widely distributed prosperity in human history. Except for the brief interlude of Vietnam, we also avoided the ravages of war. Although serious, the Cold War was a distant and abstract threat, with minimal casualties (mostly covert) among our forces, and none at home.

So we Boomers thought we were exempt from the laws of life. We thought our plush heritage, won through our parents’ virtue, freed us from the need to cultivate our own.

We were wrong. Nothing can reduce the need to cultivate virtue, and nothing ever will. As long as mankind lives, it will be the essence of a just and healthy society.

Our children seem to understand this. Among white voters 29 or under in South Carolina, more than half preferred Barack Obama, a man of virtue. And that was in the Deep South. Among young African-Americans, 77% preferred him. Meanwhile the Republicans appear to be coalescing, if somewhat reluctantly, around John McCain, also a man of virtue.

But we Boomers are confused. We listen to the charges and countercharges. We scrutinize the five-point plans. We argue about past mistakes. We second-guess the experts. We immerse ourselves in minutiae, as if our limited individual brains could hope to match the collective expertise of a nation of 300 million.

What we don’t understand is that none of this matters. No single voter can hope to appreciate, let alone replicate, the knowledge and expertise available in the thousands of departments and subspecialties of our great universities, government bureaucracies, laboratories and think tanks. All that knowledge and expertise are available to any leader for the taking, and any leader with the virtues of wisdom, patience and humility will tap them.

Therefore what matters is the old virtues. Our leaders need humility to seek expertise and follow experts’ advice. They need wisdom to understand what the experts say and to judge who—if anyone—has real answers that will work. They need patience to wait when answers are incomplete or premature, as they were before we invaded Iraq. They need fortitude and determination to push through unpopular solutions. Amid inevitable multiple crises, they need the self-discipline to focus on what’s most important. They need the self-restraint to avoid antagonizing internal and external opponents and making conflict worse. Most of all, they need honesty, integrity, empathy, compassion, humility, charity and mercy to attract and hold the public’s allegiance, not just during their “honeymoon” period, but for eight long years.

The key demographic question before us is therefore simple but profound. Will we Boomers learn our lesson in time? Will we heed our forbears, our parents and our children? Or will we take one last, dangerous fling of arrogance and self-indulgence, putting our nation, our planet and our children’s future at risk yet one more time? Will we leave it to the next generation to rediscover the importance of what Plato and Socrates knew millennia ago? The future of our Republic—and perhaps our survival in the Age of Terror—depend upon the answer.


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28 January 2008

Democrats for McCain?

Don’t let the title fool you. My wife and I still support Senator Obama enthusiastically.

I wrote this piece, without the question mark, before his landslide in South Carolina, and before Frank Rich’s New York Times piece appeared on Sunday. I didn’t post it because South Carolina’s Democrats showed (overwhelmingly) that they understand the importance of virtue and can recognize it through all the “spin.”

But Democrats (and Republicans) everywhere need to know that there are real, flesh and blood, lifelong Democrats who will cross party lines and vote for John McCain if Democrats are so foolish as to nominate the Clintons.

We will do so not out of disappointment or spite, but out of careful analysis and firm conviction. We have read Plato and Socrates, and we know that no good can come from leaders without virtue. Here is our complete analysis:

As important as it is, this election is not about “experience” or competence. Any president can find experts throughout our great nation. All he or she needs is the wisdom and humility to seek and them out and follow their advice.

Nor is this election about policies. In the hands of politicians—let alone candidates—policies are malleable. Even the best and most constant respond to unforeseeable circumstances in unforeseeable ways. No one can rely on the sort of vague and half-baked promises that emerge from what passes for “debates.” We need something more than pabulum to decide who deserves our vote.

So how do we choose? My wife and I think this election is about virtue—that quaint notion of the ancient Greeks.

We have always admired John McCain. So, apparently, has everyone else. A halo of good will follows him wherever he goes, among his colleagues in Congress, the press, even his opponents. Few but the sleaziest and most obscure ever try to slime him.

And rightly so. McCain has virtue galore. It is as visible as the scars that torture left on his body and cancer left on his face.

He has one virtue unique among the entire field of candidates: physical courage. He is the only one who ever engaged in combat for country. For his courage he was tortured and gravely wounded.

While we don’t discount physical courage, we value moral courage even more highly. McCain has that, too. He has consistently fought the corruption that destroyed Rome, despite a party and a Supreme Court that are unable to unmask money disguised as “speech.” He was among the first Republicans to fight the fossil-fuel lobby for a sane energy policy. He gets global warming. He was the first Republican to recognize That Idiot Rumsfeld for what he is and demand his removal.

McCain has consistently supported a sane and humane immigration policy despite the damage doing so has done to his campaign. He even managed to get Dubya to sign up to condemning torture. And he did so amidst a misguided war that had become the sole basis for Dubya’s political survival.

We don’t agree with McCain’s views on the war in Iraq. While we would like to stabilize Iraq, we simply don’t think doing so is as important, for example, as crushing our own internal corruption or Al Qaeda in Pakistan. But we know that McCain understands, up close and personal, the sacrifices of our troops. We trust he will never take their heroism for granted, ignore their expert commanders, or use them as political props. And we are sure he will not forget them when they return home from war.

We are troubled by McCain’s two rare panders, on the Bush tax cuts and the religious right. But we think that is just what they are, panders. McCain has always kept his own counsel and avoided simplistic ideology. We also see his own bipartisan instincts and a Democratic Congress (which will almost certainly grow stronger next year) as proof against his pandering becoming policy.

We do not believe the economy is our most important challenge. We can survive a recession, even a deep one. We cannot survive another eight years of the moral bankruptcy and dereliction of principle from which this election is supposed to save us.

That’s why my wife and I—lifelong Democrats—will support the Clintons’ candidacy only under extreme circumstances. We will hold our noses and vote for Hillary only if Mitt is her opponent. While professing to be religious, Mitt is utterly devoid of virtue and principle. We think four years of him, let alone eight, would give our Republic the coup de grace. Fortunately, Rudy is no longer a similar threat; he will return to the obscurity he so richly deserves.

We do not for a moment see Hillary or Bill as racist. But that’s precisely what makes their betrayal of virtue so breathtaking. They cynically exploited (and thereby fostered) the still-powerful racism against which they had struggled their entire careers. Until South Carolina, that tactic appeared to be having its intended effect. It could still.

However Bill in his brilliance may rationalize that betrayal, it was entirely self-serving. The Clintons put themselves above their party, their principles, their legacy, and their country. We cannot forget that betrayal or stomach that sort of arrogance—and neither of us has any African blood.

In contrast, John McCain famously said it is better to lose an election than a war. He said so even when he was down and nearly out. We don’t agree with him on the importance of that war, but we admire his demonstration that he values principle and country above self.

McCain has shown that same virtue time and time again. So if the Democrats are foolish enough to nominate the Clintons and the Republicans wise enough to nominate McCain, our choice is clear.

We think many Democrats are like us. We hope Democrats concerned about “electability” will repent before it is too late. Obama’s overwhelming victory in South Carolina gives us hope. But the glitter of a woman in the White House seems to have blinded some voters to the importance of virtue. We hope the Clintons’ betrayal of virtue will make them think again.

Like McCain, Barack Obama personifies virtue. As Democrats, we prefer him. But if Obama is not to win the nomination this year, we can wait, and so can he.

Obama is young; McCain is old. McCain might not seek a second term. If he stumbled, Obama would be ready. In the meantime, we would have an honest man of self-evident virtue in the White House for a change. We could be proud of our country while a Democratic Congress checked ideological zeal. And we could wait patiently for the real change that will inevitably come with time.

South Carolina gave us hope. Crossing over may not be necessary. But make no mistake about it. If Democrats are blind to virtue and Republicans can see, we will cross party lines for the first time in our lives and support John McCain.


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25 January 2008

What’s Happened to Bill?

Let’s face it. A big part of Hillary’s appeal is Bill. Many of us still love him.

Some voters look forward to a co-presidency. Some African-American leaders remember Bill for appointing more African-Americans to high office than any previous president. For voters worried about the economy, Hillary incessantly recalls Bill’s halcyon days of budget surpluses, healthy growth, and above-average job creation. (She neglects to note that the seeds of the 2000-2001 bust were sown on Bill’s watch; you can’t blame that on Bush.)

Hillary leaning on Bill is inevitable. Despite her endless self-serving references to her “experience” and her “35 years” in politics, she hasn’t really done much on her own.

Really listen to her own speeches, and you’ll know. The only specific things she mentions regularly are her failed health-care plan, some early work as a children’s advocate, and a few votes in the Senate for things that passed. She has never made an executive decision because she has never been an executive. She has been trying—so far quite successfully—to build the illusion of vast experience by repeating vapid generalities.

It’s not surprising that she hasn’t done very much. Junior senator from New York is the only elective or appointive public office she has ever held.

Junior senators seldom accomplish much because the Senate is a creature of seniority. Notwithstanding her incredibly successful propaganda, Hillary is in the very same class with Barack and John, insofar as experience is concerned. As compared with Obama on total years in elective office, she is four years short.

Yet neither Barack nor John is married to a widely beloved ex-president. So neither can claim the kind of vicarious executive experience, plus supposed influence on a healthy economy, that Hillary seeks to claim through Bill. That’s why her campaign depends on Bill.

Before electing our first female co-president on her husband’s popularity, skill and record, shouldn’t we give him a close look now?

People change. They get older. They have heart disease and triple bypasses.

All that has happened to Bill. He had his triple bypass in September 2004, three years and four months ago. According to a report in the New England Journal of Medicine, “Among [coronary bypass] patients studied, the incidence of cognitive decline was 53 percent at discharge, 36 percent at six weeks, 24 percent at six months, and 42 percent at five years.” (emphasis added.) In short, more than two in five bypass patients experienced a loss in brain function five years after surgery.

Is there any evidence that Bill is among those two in five? I don’t know him personally, but look at his recent on-screen behavior. He called Barack Obama’s early opposition to the Iraq war a “fairy tale,” despite solid documentation and widespread admiration for Obama’s courageous stand. His own wife had to clarify his words in last Tuesday’s debate, explaining that no one questioned Obama’s opposition to the war five months before it began.

But don’t just read transcripts, look at the clip of Bill. Hear his tone of voice and watch his expressions.

I’m no medical doctor, but if I saw one of my friends acting like that, I would suspect the onset of senile dementia. I would have that suspicion even if the person involved were not an ex-president for whom diplomacy and understatement were once a way of life. And if the “fairy tale” outburst is not enough to convince you, read about another Billish rant reported Wednesday by the Washington Post.

One of the things we need most in our next president is self-restraint. Despite his so-called “conservatism,” Dubya as president has been a study in the absence of self-restraint—in spending, in going to war half cocked, in pronouncing sovereign nations and their leaders “evil,” and in taking simplistic ideological nostrums for analysis of real-world problems.

As l’ affaire Monica testifies, Bill Clinton never had much self-restraint. He was one of the smartest people on the planet, but he couldn’t even refrain from eating himself into a triple bypass, despite decades of public medical warnings. In contrast, Barack Obama quit smoking in the middle of a grueling presidential campaign. Who has more self-discipline and self-restraint?

I can understand why folks still love Bill. He was a brilliant, all-too-human president who understood economics, cared about people and tried hard to promote interracial harmony.

But that was then, and this is now. Now we are looking at a co-presidency of an aging, once-brilliant Boomer whose last vestige of self-restraint appears dissolving in onrushing senility. He is to co-lead us with a woman who voted for war without doing her homework and whose greatest political triumph is getting people to believe—without a shred of specific evidence of executive decision making—that she’s much more than a mere second-term junior senator from New York.

Won’t putting these same folks back in the White House now really be “rolling the dice”?

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21 January 2008

Follow the Light!

Unstated headline: Obama got more delegates in Nevada than the Clintons.

Now we all know. Whites will vote for a “black” man. They did in Iowa and Nevada. They did even in New Hampshire, where the race was very close.

All it takes is one so far above the field that none can fail to see his merit. Obama is that one. Knowing him dissolves all trace of prejudice in admiration.

In truth he belongs to all of us. He is half and half—black from Africa, white from Kansas—and Ph.D.s on both sides. Black or white, we each can claim him.

But Obama is no mere symbol. He’s the best we have. None can match him. In judgment, brains, wisdom, humanity, and empathy he has no equal. Zbigniew Brzezinski lauds his judgment in foreign affairs. Ken Burns thinks he may be Lincoln returned. He is the “genuine article.”

After forty years of mediocre leadership or worse, redemption is at hand. After centuries of slavery, oppression, disrespect, condescension, tokenism and galling sympathy, Africa’s descendants’ time has come. Who of any race does not exult?

When your grandchildren ask of this historic time, what will you say?

Will you say you fell for “spin” and myths about “experience”? That you owed the Clintons for speaking kindly about race? That you failed to value judgment in keeping us safe? That you voted with the “establishment”? That you did as your pastor or leader bade? That you failed to register or vote? That gender blinded you to glaring flaws and uncommon greatness?

Or will you say you seized the moment? Will you say you voted your heart? Will you say you helped to quell division and restore America’s promise?

Will you put an end to fear, “spin” and demagoguery? Will you close the Civil War’s dreadful book at last? Will you drive away the darkness of despair? Will you let our light shine once again?

Long before there was an America, an English King named Henry led a small band against a much larger French force. He won. What he told his soldiers before battle we should all recall while in the voting booth:

        This story shall the good mom teach her child;
        And prim’ry voting day shall ne’er go by;
        From this day to the ending of the world,
        But we in it shall be remembered;
        We few, we happy few, sisters and brothers;
        For she to-day that votes her heart with me
        Shall be my sister; be she ne’er so vile,
        This day shall gentle her condition:
        And men and women found in lands abroad
        Shall think themselves accursed they were not here
        And hold their voices cheap while any speaks
        That voted with us on election day.

William Shakespeare, King Henry V, Act. IV, Scene iii (with apologies for editing).

On to South Carolina and victory! Follow the light!


I was thinking of posting a more current essay, but I’m going to keep this post front and center for another few days. What changed my mind was watching Obama’s speech at the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church on Martin Luther King Day.

After watching it for a few minutes, I forgot the venue. I forgot that the audience was mostly African-American. I saw only people listening with rapt attention to our future president, a great leader, perhaps our greatest in a century and a half.

I know many people will skip over a post like this. It doesn’t have any current facts, gossip or analysis. It’s emotional, not analytical.

But we’re all human, after all. Emotions dictate our most important decisions: whom we marry, where we live, what we fight for, and whom we vote for. The smartest and most disciplined of us are blends of reason and emotion.

Obama’s speech shows how deeply he understands this, and how fit he therefore is to lead us.

Our trouble is not that we are emotional. For seven years we've been governed by the wrong emotions: fear, greed, hate and division. Obama wants to replace them with confidence, charity, empathy and unity.

Take half an hour and watch his speech. If you do, he’ll convince you that, like Lincoln, he can help us achieve that goal. As Plato understood millennia ago, it is virtue, not five-point programs, that makes a good society. Virtue is where it all starts and what our leaders lack today.


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18 January 2008

Why Judgment Matters

People under 50 don’t remember, but the human race almost destroyed itself in 1962. You can learn a lot by studying the Cuban Missile Crisis, especially if you are too young to remember it yourself.

If you like multimedia learning, rent a DVD and watch the movie “Thirteen Days.” It’s a docudrama, not a documentary, but its basic facts are historically accurate. It should be required viewing for every American citizen and for everyone anywhere who wants to know why judgment matters.

The facts are simple to state. At the height of our Cold War with the Soviet Union, our spy planes and satellites discovered what looked like parts of Soviet missiles in Cuba. Other intelligence indicated they were medium-rage nuclear missiles. Once launched, they could obliterate New York, Washington, D.C., and our entire Eastern seaboard in less than fifteen minutes.

Our leaders went to the United Nations and showed the world photos of the missile sites and the missile parts, still not fully assembled. Rather than make an all-out military assault on Cuba—a “solution” proposed by military advisers—President Jack Kennedy took less drastic action. He ordered our Navy to impose a blockade of Cuba until the missiles were removed.

What happened next is as deeply engraved in my own memory as President Kennedy’s assassination thirteen months later. There was no Internet, but I worked part time at a place with a teletype (an electrical machine that transcribed, letter by letter, news releases from the Associated Press).

Normally that place was full of noise. On this day, it was silent as a tomb. All of us who worked there were gathered around the teletype, ashen faced, four deep, as the Soviet Fleet approached within range of our blockading Navy. World War III seemed only minutes away.

Hardly daring to breathe, we kept silent as the Soviet ships got closer and closer to ours. The teletype also was silent. Suddenly, it burst into life, slowly typing the words—letter by letter—“Soviet fleet turns back.”

We all cheered. Some of us cried. All of us felt a shiver of divine redemption.

But the redemption we experienced was not divine. It was due to the cool and wise judgment of one man, President Jack Kennedy.

As we learned later, not all the Cuban missiles were still disassembled. A few were already operational—enough to destroy New York and Washington and start World War III. In addition, some of the Soviet ships had nuclear-tipped torpedoes, and their captains had been authorized to use them at their discretion. As the Soviet fleet approached ours, Armageddon was indeed minutes away.

For public consumption, President Kennedy played the macho role. In one of the most famous quotations of the Cold War, he said, “The other fellow blinked.”

But what actually happened was quite different. Kennedy had gotten on the telephone with Nikita S. Khrushchev (the Soviet leader at the time) and worked out a deal. We would remove our medium-range missiles from Turkey, our ally, if the Soviets would remove theirs from Cuba first. The Soviets also got a guarantee that we would never invade Cuba, which stands to this day. Those concessions were a small price to pay to remove the Cuban missile threat and avoid Armageddon and the destruction of Earth’s biosphere.

Whenever I think of that day in October 1962, I recall my own feelings. I looked up into the blue October sky and wondered whether I would see the incoming nuclear missiles before they exploded. I tried to imagine how it might feel to be vaporized.

If Richard Nixon had won the 1960 election, I am sure that would have been my fate. He was a smart man, but he had none of Kennedy’s self-confidence, coolness under fire, or judgment. He would not, like Kennedy, have ignored the advice of his gung-ho military leaders and made a deal with Khrushchev to avoid nuclear war. The 30,000 votes by which Kennedy won the 1960 election saved us all from nuclear Armageddon.

That’s why, of all the presidents of my lifetime, Kennedy is the one I most revere. He had a chance to start the biggest fight in history: a climactic battle between the forces of freedom and “lawless, godless, atheist Communism.” He had plenty of encouragement. Nearly all of his Cabinet (except for his brother Robert) supported immediate and massive air strikes and a full-scale invasion of Cuba. Doesn’t that sound a lot like our Senate just before we invaded Iraq?

But Jack Kennedy was cleverer than his advisers and kept his own counsel. He didn’t fall for the cheap emotional appeal of taking out the threatening missiles at any risk or cost. Instead, he avoided a climactic battle and let humanity muddle on for another day.

Whenever people claim that experience is more important than judgment, I recall the Cuban Missile Crisis. But for the good judgment of two men—President Jack Kennedy and General Secretary Nikita S. Khrushchev—nearly all of you reading this post would not be alive today. Those under 55 would never have been born. Those older, if alive at all, would be part of an eviscerated society working its radioactive way back up from the Stone Age.

Today the risk of that sort of Armageddon seems remote. But is it? What would happen if one of our cities exploded in a nuclear terrorist attack? What would we do if we received a credible threat of such an attack? Would a mini-Armageddon ensue? Would a new Dark Age of suspicion, martial law and totalitarian rule emerge?

No experience can prepare anyone for such a thing. No one alive has that sort of experience: Kennedy, Khrushchev and their principal advisers are all gone.

As we face the intertwined threats of terrorism and nuclear proliferation, plus the longer-term threat of global warming, the only thing that can save us is good judgment. There is no substitute for wise judgment, and no way to undo the disasters that bad judgment precipitates. Just think of the war in Iraq.

Hillary Clinton voted to authorize that war without even reading the crucial report. You might say it was a single mistake of judgment. But there have been several others. And a single mistake can be fatal. Just imagine Richard Nixon with his finger on the button in October 1962.

UPDATE (2/6/08):

Cynthia Tucker, the well-known Editorial Page Editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, wrote on this theme just before Super Tuesday. Maybe that’s one reason why Obama won Georgia so decisively. People are slowly beginning to realize that Obama is not just an inspiration and a “movement,” but by far the best candidate, and the one who can best keep us safe.


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17 January 2008

Nixon and Bush in Female Form?

Two days ago I wrote a post blaming the media for the flap about race in the Democratic primary contest. I thought there was nothing there but an attempt to fill slow news days. I was wrong.

Last night Mark Shields, the perennial Democratic pundit on the Lehrer News Hour, reported a darker view. He said that six leading Democratic analysts, not aligned with any campaign, believe Hillary Clinton is playing the race card. She is trying to get voters to support her because she is all white, while Senator Obama is of mixed race.

It was not just Shields’ report of experts’ views that convinced me. Consistent conduct of Hillary and her supporters leads to the same conclusion. By their acts ye shall know them.

First Hillary herself belittled the contribution of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to the cause of civil rights and racial equality. It took, she said, the legislative skill of Lyndon Johnson as president to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and start the long process of making Dr. King’s dream come true.

While that statement has a germ of truth, it neglects a larger truth. Without Dr. King, the dream would never have entered our national consciousness. It was he who dreamed the dream, gave the speech, brought the dream to life with courage on the streets, and let the rest of us see it. It was he who worked tirelessly behind the scenes to get hardened pols like Johnson to see it, too. And four years later, it was Dr. King who gave his life for the cause, becoming our first secular American saint.

Anyway, why make the comparison if not to bring up race? Could Hillary seriously compare herself with Lyndon Johnson?

Before becoming president, Johnson served twelve years in the House, twelve years in the Senate—six of them as Senate majority leader—and nearly three years as Vice President. Two historians consider him the most effective Senate majority leader in history. For Hillary to compare herself with Johnson, even by implication, would be a far more egregious lie than the four myths that Hillary has spun so assiduously to inflate her résumé.

Soon afterward, Robert Johnson, former CEO of BET, made oblique reference to Obama’s confessed drug use while a youth. He did so while stumping for Hillary at her own rally. Later he tried to explain that remark away, but his explanation fell flat. What he was really doing was raising the same sort of nameless fear of crime, as associated with race, that Dubya's father used in the famous Willie Horton ad to defeat Mike Dukakis in 1988.

The last straw came last night. News broke that Clinton supporters have gone to court to prevent maids, busboys, and waiters—mostly Latinos—in Las Vegas’ casinos from having the right to caucus where they work.

Yes, you read that right. Folks who call themselves Democrats are seeking to disenfranchise low-income, minority voters just as Karl Rove and Alberto Gonzales’ legions have sought to do for the last eight years.

Hillary’s campaign did not file the lawsuit. But her supporters did. And her own husband reportedly approved of it. In his inimitable Orwellian logic, Bill called it a quest for equality.

As James Bond once said, “Once is coincidence. Twice is happenstance. Three times is enemy action.”

These three consistent stories all show what the Clintons or their supporters are prepared to do to slake their boundless ambition. They will turn to the Dark Side to win the caucuses in a single, small state. Their tactics are all of a piece with Hillary’s true motivation for approving the war in Iraq. For her it is all about ambition. The ends justify the means—any means.

Hillary is exploiting, or at least failing to condemn, modern variants of the Willie Horton ad and the politics of racial division and disenfranchisement used by Nixon, Reagan, Tom DeLay, Karl Rove and both Bushes.

I never thought I would see the day when a leading Democrat took advantage of these despicable and divisive tactics. But that day has come. All who call themselves progressives and believe in the cause for which Dr. King gave his life should take note.

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15 January 2008

Identity Politics and the Powell Parable

The last few days have seen a supernova of identity politics. When will it stop exploding?

First we had Hillary Clinton implicated in racism for making an edgy comment about the importance of political power as compared to human inspiration. Now we have a spate of newspaper articles suggesting that Latinos have it in for African-Americans. Today a Jewish columnist—not to be left out of the general orgy of ethnic indignity—laments a candidate’s failure to speak out against third hand anti-Semitism, on the part of a person lauded by the candidate’s pastor. (I provide no links because I don’t want to spread this muck.)

Until this week, we all had been acting more or less like adults. We all seemed seriously concerned about arresting our precipitous national decline. Now, suddenly, we are acting like kindergarten children forming cliques on the playground.

Every good manager knows instinctively what to do at times like this. You get both parties together in private and you say:
      “I don’t care who is right or wrong or who started it. You settle this, right here and right now, and make it disappear, or you’re both fired!”
Military leaders and kindergarten teachers do the same, with changes in message appropriate to the context.

“We, the people” are supposed to be the ultimate bosses of this country. But we can’t fire ourselves. Nor can we fire the media who are largely responsible for these tempests in teapots.

We can’t even effectively boycott the offenders, for they are all in it together. Even the Lehrer New Hour—usually the gold standard of TV news—is in the game. Last night it subjected us to the spectacle of two old lions of the civil rights movement refighting—with apparently real emotion—the puerile “he said - she said” spat between the Clinton and Obama campaigns.

Like it or not, we are all in this together. We all need to take a deep breath and recount the Powell Parable.

Early in his military career, Colin Powell was in charge of a platoon of soldiers engaged in parachute training. Days of exhausting exercises, plus the usual sleep deprivation, left everyone bleary and fuzzy minded, simulating the fog of war. It was the last jump at the end of a long, hard day.

Powell and his men huddled in the aircraft around a “fail safe” ring. A cord from each soldier’s parachute had to be attached to the ring so that his ‘chute would open automatically after the soldier jumped.

Like his men, Powell was mentally and physically exhausted. Yet he was conscious of his responsibility as leader. As the plane ascended for the jump, Powell methodically checked each soldier’s safety cord. He found one unattached to the ring. Holding it aloft so the soldier could see, Powell attached it securely.

The engines and the rush of air through the open door made too much noise for talk. But after the jump, the soldier thanked Powell profusely for a simple act of diligence that might have saved his life.

When Powell attached the safety cord to the ring, it didn’t matter whether his hand was black or white. What mattered was the mind behind the hand: its judgment, diligence and attention to detail. All brains are gray.

The story appeared in Powell’s autobiography, My American Journey. It is a fine parable for our nation’s present condition.

We are about to cook our planet beyond repair. During the next eight years, terrorism and nuclear proliferation may intersect, creating a real threat to our very own cities, the like of which we have not seen since October 1962. Our most dangerous enemies are still alive and in hiding, growing stronger by the day and still plotting against us. Our infrastructure is falling apart, and the moral fiber that once made us the envy of the world is disintegrating in lies and “spin.”

And we are worried about minor, implicit, race and gender slights?

If this nonsense continues, the candidates who play these childish games—and the media who abet and magnify them for profit—will be complicit in the destruction of our Republic.

When a helping hand attaches our national parachute cord to that safety ring at last, no one should care what chromosomes it bears. It might be Hillary Clinton’s delicate female hand. It might be Barack Obama’s coffee-colored one. It might be John McCain’s grizzled white one. (The other alternatives are too awful to contemplate.)

Our job as citizens is to look beyond the hand’s appearance and evaluate the brains, judgment, wisdom and political skill behind it. The media’s job is to help us do that. Anything less is a form of soft treachery, to our ideals and to our survival as a nation.

And don’t say that this garbage is real, so we have to report it. One of our two greatest presidents, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was a cripple who could not walk unassisted. Yet from the entire span of his four terms as president, only two photos of him in braces remain. Our news media once knew how to suppress, not magnify, irrelevant, treacherous stories that might threaten our national survival. They should learn that skill anew.


While the Powell parable still provides a useful guide for voting, subsequent events suggest that the Clintons and their supporters deliberately played the “race card” and are working to suppress minority voting in Nevada. So the “race card” story is not just media hype. See this post.

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13 January 2008

Four Myths that Need Debunking

During the Democratic presidential campaign, our sleepy media have let four myths be taken as fact. All four are simply not so. Yet at least part of the public appears to have bought them, particularly in New Hampshire.

If Americans are to pick a president rationally, the myths deserve debunking. Here are the four myths and the reasons why they are demonstrably and sometimes spectacularly false:

Myth 1: Experience matters more than judgment. That anyone would dare to make this claim after the last seven years show how far our campaigns have departed from reality. George W. Bush’s entire presidency demonstrates the contrary.

After 9/11 came, Bush decided to divert attention and resources from bin Laden and Zawahiri, who were responsible, to Saddam, who wasn’t. When Katrina came, it was Bush who had decided to hollow out FEMA and install an incompetent crony as its leader.

Both debacles—Iraq and Katrina—are results of Bush’s failures of judgment. Colin Powell, who had 35 years of military experience, advised Bush not to go into Iraq or, if he did, to take twice as many troops as Bush authorized. Numerous members of Congress and his own Administration advised Bush to take the Department of Homeland Security and FEMA seriously. Yet his “judgment” told him to use FEMA as a laboratory to prove neoconservatives’ ideology of small government and outsourcing.

The point is not to recount Bush’s monumental failures of judgment. They speak for themselves. The point is that no one foresaw the unprecedented events that made those failures of judgment so devastating.

No one ever can foresee challenges like 9/11 or Katrina. Yet every president inevitably faces unforeseen challenges.

Experience makes little difference at the presidential level because it is nearly always the wrong experience. The challenges a president faces, like 9/11 and Katrina, won’t even resemble those faced by his or her predecessors. What matters is judgment: the ability to respond appropriately to new and unforeseen events, the like of which have never occurred.

The past few months drive home this point. Al Qaeda has begun to try to destabilize Pakistan, a nuclear armed Islamic nation, and its most popular democratic leader returned from exile and was assassinated. Who could foresee that? Kenya, arguably the most stable and democratic country in Africa, has imploded in rigged elections and tribal violence. Who could foresee that?

There was and is no “blueprint” or “experience” that would have prepared a president to handle the first devastating terrorist attack in New York City, the first hurricane that inundates an major American city, the first concerted attempt by terrorists to take over a nuclear armed Islamic state, or the implosion of a model African democracy in tribal violence.

The only thing any president can do when something wholly unprecedented comes up is listen to the experts and decide. Experts nearly always differ on the best course of action, so the president’s judgment in making final decisions is crucial. If Colin Powell had been president, for example, the history of our response to 9/11 and Katrina would have been entirely different, because Powell has superb judgment.

Myth 2: a presidential candidate’s detailed proposals for domestic legislation matter. Most presidential candidates don’t prepare detailed programmatic proposals for domestic affairs. Instead, they focus on broad themes and the high points of domestic policy.

Why? Because in our constitutional scheme, the president proposes but Congress disposes. Congress, not the president, sets domestic policy.

Congress today is deeply divided on ideology. What emerges from the legislative process seldom even resembles, let alone tracks, any proposal that the president makes. If any demonstration of this point were needed, the abject failure of Bush’s proposals on immigration and social security are ample proof.

Even if the Democrats enjoy a landslide victory at all levels next year, complete control of the legislative process is unlikely. The Senate’s filibuster rules require 60 votes to pass any legislation over the minority’s objection. Therefore any legislative proposal is likely to require the approval or acquiescence of a significant number of Republican Senators.

So what matters is not the details of a candidate’s proposals for domestic legislation during the presidential campaign. What matters is the president’s judgment and political skill.

The deep ideological divide between the Republicans and Democrats is not going to disappear with one election. So a president who wants to realize the broad goals of his or her campaign will require the judgment to decide what is politically possible—and what must be compromised—and the skill to see it through. Bipartisan appeal and the ability to work across party lines will be crucial.

From Lincoln and Teddy to FDR and Reagan, real domestic change has always come through building new coalitions. Policy nerds don’t bring real change. Only skillful politicians with a strong madate for change and broad bipartisan appeal do.

Myth 3: a president’s chief job is to set the nation’s domestic policy. This myth is nonsense for the same reasons as Myth 2. The president has only an indirect effect on domestic policy. He or she may propose changes in policy, but Congress can reject or amend them or reconfigure them entirely. A president can block Congress’ own initiatives through the veto, but that’s all that a president can do without sufficient support in Congress and sufficient political skill to find a new way or middle ground.

A president also influences domestic policy in the way he or she interprets the law, makes appointments in the vast federal bureaucracy, and oversees the rules and regulations that the federal bureaucracy makes and enforces. But legislation passed by Congress controls even the president’s power to do these things.

In domestic affairs, the president is never more than a partner with Congress. And even that partnership is subject to review by the courts.

In contrast, a president’s power is nearly supreme in the realm of foreign and military affairs. A president is commander in chief of our armed forces. As the courts have confirmed again and again, the president sets our foreign policy and controls the military and our intelligence services, subject only to general (and recently largely ineffectual) oversight by Congress.

The only real power that Congress has in these fields is the power of the purse and the Senate’s power to advise and consent to treaties. Lately Congress has exercised the purse power seldom and sparingly. In the last half-century, Congress has never asserted its explicit constitutional power to declare war, being satisfied with resolutions (like the one authorizing military action against Iraq). Only once since World War II (in the Vietnam war) has Congress cut off funding for military action ordered by the president.

The president’s primary and unique job is in the field of foreign and military affairs. He or she controls and manages our armed forces and intelligence services, monitors foreign affairs, administers foreign aid granted by Congress, negotiates treaties, international compacts and alliances, takes emergency military action when necessary, and merely reports what’s been done to Congress and the people. In these fields, our supposed democracy resembles one-person rule in many respects. And the increasing use of “fast track” authority over trade agreements has made the president’s awesome power over external affairs even stronger.

Insofar as major domestic policy initiatives are concerned, our nation could get along without a president. The majority leaders in the houses of Congress could take up the slack. But without a president our country would be a headless horseman in the field of foreign and military affairs.

Because a president has so much power—and often acts alone—in these fields, it is crucial to assess a president’s judgment and skill in exercising these executive functions. It is also vital to determine whether a president is likely to follow our Constitution and respect checks and balances. As compared to the importance of these factors, political skill in domestic affairs is a minor matter.

Myth 4: vicarious experience is real executive experience.
There is an enormous difference between observing executive decisions—even at close range—and making them.

Aides, lawyers, teachers, columnists, critics, historians, bloggers and political junkies all observe, analyze, and criticize executive decisions. But they don’t make them.

When they write a book, a memo, a column or a diatribe on a blog, there are no consequences, except perhaps for their reputations. They don’t have the responsibility for billions of dollars or thousands of lives. And they have all the time in the world to temporize and second guess their own and others’ decisions.

Real executive leaders act alone. They make decisions no one else can make, and they do so in real time. They must respond quickly to unforeseen events and emergencies. They must act without the benefit of hindsight, on incomplete or inaccurate information, and only they have responsibility for the consequences.

Good leaders have competent experts to advise them. But expert advice often diverges dramatically, and the experts themselves often have no direct experience with emerging contingencies. So real executives, whether in business, politics, or national leadership, are on their own.

A person who observes the process of executive decision making, even as a spouse, is in no different position than the thousands of aides, advisers, critics, newspaper columnists, historians, pundits, bloggers and political junkies who offer advice or dissect a decision after it was made. To suppose otherwise is to suggest that Tom Friedman, Robert Novak, Barbara Bush or Laura Bush would make a good president.

* * *

Astute readers may have noticed that these four myths all have something in common. Hillary Clinton has built her presidential campaign around them. They are the pillars of her appeal to the nation.

This fact raises some questions that all voters must answer in their minds and hearts. Can we trust the judgment of a person who has tried so mightily to convince us of things that simply are not so? Can we trust that person to level with us? Or can we expect a second Clinton Administration, if it arrives, to bring us more of the disinformation, “spin” and misjudgments that have characterized the last seven years? Can our national house stand not only divided, but on quicksand?

P.S. As for terrorism, see this post.

Irony to the Max

Speaking of judgment, did you catch the news clips of President Bush holding hands with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia?

There was Dubya, walking hand in hand with the king, visibly trying to keep half a step ahead. With all his characteristic frat-boy awkwardness, he was striving to show who is really boss.

If there were a Pulitzer Prize for irony, the photographer(s) should get it. The clip was so densely packed with irony that it might become a black hole.

First was the human dimension. There were two leaders enjoying a simple gesture of human affection—albeit one generally alien to our culture. The bond between oil men runs deep.

In one of the most a cynical, divisive and despicable moves in our political history, one of the two men had built his stairway to power on the backs of powerless gays. Yet there he was, holding hands with another man. Somewhere a gay man was smiling sardonically.

But that was just the beginning of irony. Our fearless president, who had won his second term selling fear of terror, was walking hand in hand with the man whose twisted regime had made terror possible.

In a decades-old Faustian bargain with their own Wahhabi Islamic extremists, the Saudi Princes have diverted their oil wealth into madrassas teaching the Koran and hate. They have done so secretly, while enjoying all the secular, non-Islamic pleasures of the West that their enormous oil wealth could buy. They even had the good sense to finance the hate-spewing madrassas in Pakistan, far from their own vulnerable regime.

So concerned were we with their black gold that we sent half a million troops halfway around the world to protect their regime (and their oil) in Gulf I. That single act—putting “infidel” troops in the Islamic Holy Land of Mecca and Medina—was the trigger for bin Laden’s conversion from obscure scion of a Saudi construction magnate into the world’s most wanted terrorist.*

It was no coincidence that fifteen of the nineteen 9/11 hijackers came from Saudi Arabia. The Saudi Princes financed the madrassas that provide the inspiration and ideology for terrorism, and their reliance on our military protection turned bin Laden to the Dark Side. Yet there was our president, holding hands with the symbol of an oppressive monarchy whose misguided policies created the social and political base for Al Qaeda (which means “The Base” in Arabic).

The final irony is what that awkward hand-holding has done to our national values. We pride ourselves on independence and self-reliance, at least in our national mythology. In practice, we have become oil junkies, dependent on Saudi oil to feed our gas-guzzling SUVs. So dependent are we on oil that many of us have forsaken physical exercise entirely and, in consequence, have become grossly obese.

Our own Faustian bargain with Big Oil mirrors the Saudis Princes’ Faustian bargain with Islamic extremism. They have sold their souls to extremists for a temporary and illusory peace, and we have sold our souls to them for oil.

And there was Bush, walking hand in hand with the king who personifies our national fall from grace. For a man who won the presidency by touting “values” above policy and common sense, it was the final irony and the final ignominy.

Perhaps that black hole of irony can produce something good. Maybe this year “we, the people” will rise up, buy back our souls with sweat and innovation, and begin to cast off the yoke of oil dependency. A new environmental vision can show us the way.

See Lawrence Wright, The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, 153-161 (Alfred A. Knopf 2006)

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11 January 2008

The Thing that Dares not Speak its Name

Yesterday Andrew Kohut spoke the unspeakable.

For those who don’t know him, he is one of the deans of American political polling. A likeable, credible and thoroughly professional man, he is a regular on the Lehrer News Hour, where he explains the methods and results of scientific opinion polling.

What he wrote yesterday was very direct: the difference between Iowa and New Hampshire—and the reason why all the polls on the N.H. Democratic race were wrong—was racism, pure and simple. Poor and uneducated white voters, who tend to avoid revealing their views to pollsters, voted against Obama because of race.

That was my first thought, too. It was the first thought of anyone familiar with the long experience of polls overestimating the popularity of minority candidates. Kohut himself confirmed this point.

Yet I and many others did not speak our minds. Why? Because, so often, racism is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The rap against Obama has always been that he can’t win because of someone else’s racism. If people (like me) who think he is by far the best candidate in either party believe that, then racism becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Those of us who are well enough informed and educated to recognize a once-in-a-century leader when we see him, despite his color, are controlled by those who aren’t. What a tragic dilemma!

But I was wrong to ignore the phenomenon, and I salute Kohut for speaking what dares not say its name. It is never good policy to deny reality, however abhorrent. Even Dubya knows that now.

Now that the well-known secret is out, there is only one question. What do those of us who enthusiastically support Obama’s candidacy do?

We obviously can’t “play the race card,” complaining and decrying. Doing that would only create white resentment and a backlash, which might be worse than the residue of racism itself. Nobody likes a whiner, even if the whining is justified.

Obama himself knows this. He hasn’t played the race card and never will. His whole life has been overcoming obstacles without complaining. That’s one of the many things that make him such an attractive candidate.

So what do we do now? The first thing is to ask ourselves why Iowa was different.

I think it was the caucuses. Secret ballots have their benefits. But there is something healthy about standing up before your peers and neighbors and explaining your vote.

That’s how they once did it in Athens and Rome. Voting was collective, not private. It took place in the Acropolis and the Forum, not behind a curtain in a secret booth.

Racism lives in the shadows; it shuns the light of day. Most good people are embarrassed to appear racist before their friends and neighbors.

But caucusing also has a decided positive effect. The vast majority of racism is “soft” racism, which derives from ignorance and semi-conscious fear. That’s especially true in places like Iowa and New Hampshire. There the African-American population is so small that many people have never known a person of mixed race well.

In Iowa, the half-conscious fear melted away when good people saw their friends and neighbors—whom they did know well—speaking enthusiastically for Obama. In New Hampshire, the ill-informed carried their half-conscious fears into the voting booth undissuaded.

So that’s our challenge in a nutshell. How do we educate a great mass of uneducated, poor whites in a just a few weeks?

There may be an answer. Recently PBS rebroadcast an interview that Gwen Ifill did with the so-called “Little Rock Nine”—the nine African-Americans who first integrated the high school in Little Rock Arkansas under the watchful eye of protective federal troops.

Every day for their entire high-school careers, the Nine ran a gauntlet of hate. Their lockers and books were trashed. They suffered threats, spittle and worse. Yet they stood their ground, studied peacefully, and got well educated.

Fifty years later, what beautiful souls they turned out to be. They were polished, thoughtful, smart, and articulate. They had made the most of the education they got, and it showed.

None of the Nine held back. They were only children at the time. They all told how hard it was, how scared they were, how tough they had to be, and how quickly they had had to grow up. But none revealed the slightest trace of bitterness or resentment. All glowed with intelligence, courage, determination, wisdom born of hardship, and fundamental decency. There are lots of others like them, including some (but not all) African-American political leaders.

If every poor, uneducated white who harbors nameless fears of race could meet one of the Little Rock Nine personally, most racism would fade away. Of course there are hard-core racists who will never change. But the vast majority of racists are those who just don’t know and just don’t think. When they think of African-Americans, no familiar friendly face comes to mind. Only the violence on TV and in the movies bubbles into their subconscious.

We whites can help, but we can’t close the deal. An example is worth ten thousand words and a thousand assurances.

What this analysis suggests is that African-Americans who support Obama need to make a massive effort to get out into demographically critical poor and uneducated white areas. They need to explain patiently why supporting Obama is in the best interests of poor and uneducated whites. Then they need to stick around, take questions and assuage fears and doubts.

Even the Little Rock Nine cannot rest yet. It’s unfair to put yet another burden on the brave Nine and all the other African-Americans who’ve fought so hard and worked so long, from the fifties until today.

But life is unfair. No one knows that better than African-Americans. That may be the only way we can turn this thing around.

And turn it around we must. Leaders like Obama come around only once a century. None of us, whatever our race, can afford to miss this chance.

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10 January 2008

A New Environmental Vision

During this lull in the presidential horse race, it might be both re-energizing and useful to think briefly about something else. How about a new idea that might solve four of humanity’s most pressing global problems?

Four factors now threaten the generally positive trend of humanity’s economic and social progress. First, we are running out of the fossil fuels that powered the industrial and electronic ages and make modern life possible. Second, burning all the fossil fuels that still lie in the ground (including coal) would cook our planet beyond repair. Third, nature’s distribution of fossil fuels concentrates—and will continue to concentrate—enormous wealth and power in some of the most politically extreme and socially backward societies on earth. Without much exaggeration, you can say that oil fuels terrorism. Finally, the Northern Hemisphere is better developed and generally more egalitarian than the Southern Hermisphere, and the latter needs to catch up.

Suppose you could address, if not solve, all four of these major problems, in a substantial way, with a single new idea. Would you consider it?

If you would, you should read Roger Cohen’s column in the New York Times today. It contains the seeds of the first really new and powerful idea on the environment and natural resources that I have read in some time. Cohen focuses on Brazil, which he is now visiting, but the idea is far bigger than even he seems to realize.

The idea is simplicity itself. The Southern Hemisphere has a lot of sun, a lot of unused land, and a lot of poor people. Why not pay people there to produce ethanol for use as a fuel by the rest of the world? They could make ethanol from sugar cane, which has eight times the energy yield per acre of land as the corn that we use for that purpose.

Here are the potential benefits of this powerful idea:

1. Ethanol from sugar cane (or corn) is a renewable resource. As long as we have land, sun and water, we can make more. The fossil fuels that still lie in the ground could stay there, to be used at a much lower rate as feedstocks for plastics, chemicals, and medicines, which don’t release carbon unless we burn them.

2. Ethanol from sugar cane (or corn) is carbon neutral. The carbon put into the atmosphere by burning this year’s fuel is absorbed by next year’s crop. If all our fuel came for sugar cane (or corn), we could stop further global warming now.

3. The vast flow of wealth from the developed world into the most dictatorial and backward societies on Earth would slow. Funds might even begin to flow to real schools, instead of madrassas that teach little but the Koran and hate. The Middle East would have to compete with the rest of the world on its skill and innovation, not on a fluke of prehistoric nature.

4. Diversion of these vast sums from the Princes of Saudi Arabia and the theoocracy of Iran, among other delightful regimes, would benefit the poorest and most needy people on Earth, in Africa and Latin America.

5. The air in the world’s cities would get a lot cleaner. Ethanol is a small, simple molecule—much simpler than the complex organic mess that is crude. Burning ethanol doesn’t produce the complex hydrocarbons that refining and burning oil does, let alone burning coal. City people the world over could breathe easier.

6. The risk of environmental disasters at sea would be greatly reduced. Unlike crude, ethanol dissolves in water. (Ever had a martini?) An ethanol spill at sea, even from a supertanker, would produce little or none of the environmental calamity that we now see with depressing regularity from oil spills.

7. Using sugar-derived ethanol would not raise the price of corn, thereby making food more expensive, particularly animal-derived food. The world seems to have enough sugar now, and the additional acreage devoted to sugar would not reduce its supply for food. As for us Americans, our obesity epidemic suggests that we already have too much sugar in our food.

There is only one problem with this grand vision: ethanol tariffs. Our sugar industry and our own farmers have prevailed upon Congress to impose tariffs on ethanol from Brazil (or anywhere else). So there is no incentive to import it or to build up industry in the Southern Hemisphere to make more.

A second possible problem is that, as human population increases and the developing world develops, we may run out of land to produce enough ethanol to meet the world’s needs. But so what? Even if ethanol is only a partial solution to this many pressing global problems, is there any downside to trying it?

Eventually we will learn how to convert the sun’s energy more directly to our benefit, without the need to grow crops to do it. In the meantime, sugar-cane-derived ethanol is an elegant, safe, socially progressive and eminently feasible solution, in whole or in part, to four major global problems.

This near-panacea requires no new technology or expensive and dilatory research. All it requires is political will and industrial organization. (It also may require greater political reform in the Southern Hemisphere, to direct the new influx of fuel money from the developed world down to the South’s poor. That’s an issue on which Cohen has some interesting things to say.)

Maybe this grand vision is not so far from our presidential horse race after all. Shouldn’t we be asking our candidates what they think about it?

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09 January 2008

Time to Show Those Brains

Senator Obama’s disappointing loss last night should be a wake-up call to his campaign. It proves what the pundits thought (before Iowa) and what I hinted at some four months ago. You can’t win a major party nomination on a wing and a prayer.

Hope, change and decency in campaigning are powerful themes. But themes alone can’t win. You have to have substance and specifics, especially when up against a self-touting wonk like Hillary.

After seven years of Dubya and Cheney, the public is much too cynical to buy a candidate on vision alone. Dubya himself had great vision, but where are we now? Obama has to accept the risk of taking positions and strutting his brains, even at the cost of appearing brighter than almost everyone else, which he is.

When a columnist as smart and fair as David Brooks twice accuses Obama of lacking substance, you have a problem. Despite being a Republican, Brooks was visibly entranced with the power and emotion of the “movement,” as much as the rest of us. But his rational mind—like that of many voters—kept saying “where’s the beef?”

It may be the fault of the media—even the Lehrer News Hour—which apparently love to capture candidates in vapid generalities. The TV clips make Hillary Clinton look like a robot programmed to repeat the words “experience” and “my 35 years” every thirty seconds at random.

But even she managed to pivot in time by raising a new theme, “talk, not action.” That’s another vapid generality, but it, plus sympathy for her tears, may have won the day. A robot that cries is a wondrous thing.

Obama comes off far less robot-like, and that’s one of his strengths. But repeating the words “judgment,” “hope” and “change” to the point of monotony is not going to win this election. Nor is it going to let the public see what we who’ve read his books and speeches see: a brilliant, once-in-a-century leader with penetrating vision and judgment, who can see around corners, as in Iraq and Pakistan.

On the most important issues of our day, Obama’s judgment has been near-perfect. His speech about Iraq, five months before the invasion, not only opposed the war, but predicted exactly what has happened. Obama shouldn’t just note his opposition. He should quote the key sentences from that 2002 speech in every stump speech.

Over five months ago, Obama suggested going into Pakistan after bin Laden. Hillary derided that suggestion. Now, when Bhutto is dead and Pakistan’s democracy is on life support, Dubya is making serious plans to do just that. While Obama can’t claim that Bhutto would be alive if the nation had followed his judgment, he can certainly note being five months ahead of everyone else.

As for health care, Obama’s judgment is dead right again. Mandates killed Hillary’s 1993 plan. They are inherently regressive. They will enrage Reagan Democrats, alienate conservatives, and give the insurance-pharma-medical lobbies a tool to demagogue reform to death once again.

What is most wrong with our health-care system mandates cannot fix. The risk of young, healthy workers gaming the system is a straw man—speculative, unproven, and improbable. It reminds me of the “welfare queen” canard of the early nineties.

I can’t for the life of me understand why Obama doesn’t trust the public to see how his superb judgment is right on this point as on so many others. Instead, he weakly promises that he’ll ask for mandates if we need them.

So far Obama’s campaign has been far too cautious. The guy who bet his career on an unpopular antiwar speech when the whole country was beating the drums of war has yet to reappear. We need to see him show that same self-confidence again.

I saw glimmers of a new approach in his concession speech last night, which was much more substantive that most of his stump speeches. But he’s got to do more. He’s got to showcase his brains, extraordinary talent and judgment. He’s got to explain to a skeptical public, in detail and specifics, why he has been both right and prescient on every major issue that faces us.

If he does so, he can bust some myths at the same time. He can prove that the American public is not stupid, does not really have a gnat-like attention span, and can be trusted with reasoning. He could start with Pakistan and health care.

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06 January 2008

Who Can Keep Us Safe?

After more than thirty years, a tale from Vietnam still sticks in my mind. Somewhere near Hanoi, a Viet Cong soldier received his orders. He strapped a heavy, bulky missile to his back. Then he set out alone on the Ho Chi Minh Trail—a long, jungle footpath from Hanoi to the battlefields around what used to be Saigon.

The soldier had little more than his rifle, a small pack of rations, and the missile. He lived on snakes, rats, other wildlife and local plants. Through oppressive heat and monsoons, he found his way to the designated spot to deliver his burden. It took him nearly a year.

When he arrived, the commander accepted the missile and fired it at our forces. Then he told the solider to go back and get another.

We know this story because the solider defected at that point. Our own media told his tale.

When I read the story, I knew the war was lost for us. Why? Because our own troops, brave though they were, would never endure that sort of privation. They were fighting for abstractions like “freedom” and against “Communism.” They were far from home, in a country about whose language and culture they knew nothing. The South Vietnamese regime for which they were ostensibly fighting was visibly oppressive, corrupt and rotten. In contrast, the North Vietnamese were fighting for their homes, their country, their people and their liberation. They had been doing so for decades.

Lyndon Johnson’s tragedy was that he understood none of this. He was a good pol, perhaps a great pol. He got the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed less than two years after Governor George Wallace (of Alabama), in his inaugural address, had proclaimed, “segregation today . . . segregation tomorrow . . . segregation forever.”

To achieve that legislative feat, Johnson cajoled, bullied and twisted arms as only Johnson could do. He was a big, crude, vulgar and overbearing man. He used to brag that he had everyone’s “pecker in my pocket.” (Most members of Congress were male in those days.) He got the Act passed and struck an important blow for equal rights and social progress.

But Vietnam was Johnson’s Achilles heel.

The most astute observers understood why. Johnson thought and acted as if Ho Chi Minh (North Vietnam’s leader) could be cajoled and bullied like the Southern segregationists. Just apply a little more pressure—bomb a little more—and he’ll come around, Johnson thought. Johnson never really understood that he was up against a foreign culture that played by different rules. Ho Chi Minh and his people were in the game for keeps, and Minh was not about to bargain like an American pol.

George W. Bush has not half Lyndon Johnson’s intelligence or skill. Not surprisingly, he made the same mistake. Once Saddam was deposed, he thought, Iraqis would welcome our troops as liberators, just as the French and Italians did in World War II.

But Iraq is not Italy, the Middle East is not Europe, and Arabic is not a Romance language. Despite over four years of deadly demonstration to the contrary, Bush still holds the pipe dream that, with a little pressure, Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites will make a compact as if they were members of Congress or Alabamans, Floridians, and Georgians settling water rights.

They’re not. They are members of three foreign cultures whose languages, religions and history the best of our experts barely understand. They have grievances whose longevity exceeds our country’s entire history by a factor of five. They play by different rules.

With the relative wisdom of General Petraeus, Ambassador Crocker and Secretary Gates, we may yet avoid a total loss in Iraq. We may end up with some kind of “soft” or de facto partition that allows the three groups to achieve security, develop economically, and perhaps someday get along. I have suggested that we mount a mini-Marshall Plan for Shiite Iraq to that end. But whatever emerges from chaotic Iraq, under the best of circumstances, will be nothing like the unified, democratic, constitutional, federal state that Bush imagined.

These sorry histories make one thing clear. Knowledge of Washington politics—even success in practicing it—is no advantage in serious conflicts with foreign cultures. It is an impediment. The habits of mind that a good Washington pol develops over decades are precisely the wrong habits to win a conflict in an alien culture.

To succeed in conflict within foreign cultures, you have to do what business people call thinking “outside the box.” You have to stick your head in that other world and keep it there until you’ve won. You have to know your enemy.

Unlike Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan are battles we cannot afford to lose. With the possible exception of Japan’s, they are the most alien cultures within which we have ever waged serious conflict. They have lots of folks who appear to enjoy dying for the sheer privilege of killing us. Their religious doctrines and schisms, which are even now under distortion and evolution, are something only the Muslims and experts among us can hope to understand.

So who can best get his or her mind in shape to lead such a fight intelligently? George W. Bush, who can barely speak his own language or get along with his own Congress? Mitt Romney, with his business-school ways, profit-and-loss tallies, and button-down consultants? Hillary Clinton, who will be 61 in 2009, has spent all her life as a student of Washington politics, and is still studying?

There is only one leading candidate for president who has any hope of providing the imagination, insight and understanding of our enemies that we need to win the battles we must win. He is Senator Barack Obama.

There are four reasons why he’s the only one. First and foremost, he has youth. He will be 47 on inauguration day. He will still be young enough to grow, change and learn. He will not have become so accustomed to the ways of Washington that our rules and culture are reflex for him. He will be able to think outside the box.

Second, Obama has x-ray vision into people’s souls. If you read his first book, Dreams from My Father, you will find uncanny insight into who people are, how they think and what motivates them. If Obama were not a politician, he could probably win a Nobel Prize for literature. All politicians have to have some degree of human understanding and empathy, but Obama is off the scale.

Third, Obama has direct and early experience with foreign cultures. He lived in Indonesia during part of his formative years. While still young, he was precocious enough to absorb some fundamental differences in culture. His first book describes them. Later, as an adult, he had the unusual experience of an extended visit with his deceased father’s family in Kenya. The combination of family ties and foreign culture gave him unique insights into cultural differences, all of which he describes with superb sensitivity in his book. The existence and importance of cultural differences were engraved in his soul from an early age.

Finally, Obama is one of the most intelligent people ever to grace American politics. I have written enough about his brains on this blog not to need to elaborate. Suffice it to say here that imagination and intelligence usually go together, and a leader needs both in abundance to win a conflict in an alien culture.

This analysis is not just theory. Over five months ago, on August 1, 2007, Obama gave a major speech on terrorism and foreign policy. In it, he suggested that we go after Al Qaeda in Pakistan. He understood that Musharraf and his military might not have our bests interests at heart, or might not be capable of dealing with the terrorist threat.

Hillary Clinton dismissed Obama's suggestion as showing his “inexperience.” Yet just this morning, the New York Times reported on the Bush Administration’s new plan for covert operations in Pakistan.

The Administration now believes that Al Qaeda is hell bent on destabilizing Pakistan and perhaps getting its hands on Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. Apparently it took an assassination and near-meltdown in Pakistani politics to get George W. Bush to see what Obama saw five months ago, under very different circumstances. Whether Hillary Clinton gets the point even now is unclear.

We lost in Vietnam, and we are in grave danger of losing in Iraq, because our leaders tried to wage war with foreign cultures as if they were still in Washington. That “strategy” didn’t work and never will.

Only one of our current candidates has the youth, insight, brains and flexibility to understand our enemies and win our battle with terrorists at minimum cost, delay and suffering. Electing a good Washington pol to oversee these unprecedented conflicts is not the safest choice. As our own history shows, it is the most dangerous.


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