Saturday, January 31, 2009

Character Vs. Caricature. Which will Prevail?

Some might argue that the two most popular and charismatic political figures in America will be sharing the stage at tonight's Alfalfa Club Dinner in Washington, D.C.: President Obama and vice presidential candidate, Governor Sarah Palin.

There are two categories of people reading this post: the first thinks Governor Palin is a joke. This conclusion was formed in part because "public opinion" was set for three months by Tina Fey and Saturday Night Live, a show that as you know was for over ten years hosted by the "Not-Ready-for-Primetime Players," which is ironic because I think Palin's first month of public exposure was likewise not quite ready for primetime. [And I'll add that her post-election turkey farm photo op would indicate that this may still be true.]

In spite of her mangled media moments, the second category of reader tends to think "public opinion" is highly over-rated. [Notice I'm not using the term "conventional wisdom." That's out of respect for the word wisdom.] This second category not only follows politics but also observes human character, and in this regard Sarah Palin showed such remarkable grace under fire for three intense months that they're convinced it's too soon to write her off as a political force.

I happen to be in the second category. I've seen her up close and was impressed, but I'm realistic enough to also be a "wait-and-see" Republican about her viability for national politics of any kind. She will have to emerge from her introduction at the GOP convention to the woman not in McCain's shadow. Whether or not she gains credibility in the next two years will depend on whether the strength of her character can break through the caricature burned in the public's memory.

On perhaps a more important note--at least at this juncture in the Republican story is Friday's election of Michael Steele (former Maryland Lieutenant Governor) as new Chairman of the Republican National Committee. I've watched him grow as a leader for some time and I'm very happy he is in this position.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

How Stimulating?

When I took Driver’s Education in high school, it was a part of the curriculum and about half of the classes were on in big trailer full of SIMULATORS, which were sort of like “driving video games” long before video games arrived. The simulators we used were not as old as this top picture and they weren't as high-tech as today's driving simulators like this one made by BMW.

Anyway, on to the point of this post...

One day my friend Linda told me she didn’t need a ride home after school because she was scheduled to be on the STIMULATOR.

“The what?” I laughed.

“You know… the STIMULATOR,” she said innocently, “It’s fun. I like it even more than driving a real car.”

“Ah, Linda…I think you mean SIMULATOR… not sTimulator.”

She was so embarrassed, but the truth is she hadn’t noticed the slight difference between simulator and stimulator much less their entirely different meanings. Funny...

But here's something not so funny...
Democrats in Washington are about to force their $900,000,000 STIMULUS package upon us. Just three months ago they (and some Republicans) agreed to create and give away nearly that much money in the now highly-questioned November "Bail Out." The effects of that money-printing machine are still unclear, and yet on the heels of condemning President Bush for overseeing rising federal debt over the past eight years, President Obama has in his first ten days proposed a pen-stroke that will add more deliberate debt to the national tab than any president in history.

Today, January 28th, President Obama tried to sound like a private-sector capitalist ending this speech with a fact he seemed to have just heard for the first time: "As we all know business not government is the engine of growth in this country." I agree whole-heartedly with this last statement, but I wonder if this is his heart or his handlers talking because here's what he said three weeks ago in what has become known as his "only government" speech January 8th (printed in red ink):
"I have moved quickly to work with my economic team and leaders of both parties on an American Recovery and Reinvestment Plan that will immediately jumpstart job creation and long-term growth. ...only government can provide the short-term boost necessary to lift us from a recession this deep and severe. Only government can break the vicious cycles that are crippling our economy....I understand that some might be skeptical of this plan. Our government has already spent a good deal of money, but we haven't yet seen that translate into more jobs or higher incomes or renewed confidence in our economy. That's why the American Recovery and Reinvestment Plan won't just throw money at our problems - we'll invest in what works."
Oh, really! Only government and only what works? Only what translates into new jobs? There is so much pork in this bill it goes beyond stimulating; it's down right titillating. "The House Democrats' bill includes $335 million for sexually transmitted disease education and prevention programs at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.... In the past, the CDC has used STD education funding for programs that many Members of Congress find objectionable and arguably unrelated to a mission of economic stimulus [such as funding events called 'Booty Call' and 'Great Sex' put on by an organization that received $698,000 in government funds.] "Whether this funding has merit is not the question; the point is it has no business in an economic plan supposedly focused on job creation," says a stimulated Hill source."
Here's what Pelosi had to say about her part of the pork in this bill.

You heard her. Part of the stimulus package will pay for contraception hand-outs. Is there still time to stop this from happening or are the Democrats feeling so virile that "No" means "Yes"? Does anyone else feel like this bill is being pushed through without consent?

Oh, how I wish the Democrats could get the same thrill by spending an afternoon in an ECONOMIC SIMULATOR, a video game that projects into the future the natural consequences of spending nearly a TRILLION DOLLARS that the government doesn’t have to spend.

The video screen would show Pelosi and Reid and President Obama in their choice of Big-3 hybrid cars driving through an obstacle course of falling banks, failing schools, boarded-up store fronts, and foreclosed homes. The first one to make it through the course gets to drive over a cliff. BUT NOT TO WORRY—little wings jettison from the car’s fenders and give the race one more lap. The word "STIMULUS" is on one wing and "PACKAGE" is on the other. The size of the wings and the weight of the car depends on how much money each driver was able to throw out en route to the cliff. If they're lucky, they soar happily away into the clouds. But according to the rules of this strange game, if they do not throw away enough money before reaching the cliff, the car may be too heavy and the wings too small, and down they go. Game over.

Oh, how I wish the Democrats were on a simulator instead of this stimulator contraption they’re asking us to get into. One thing is for sure, they have the votes to do it exactly as they want. There will be no one to blame but themselves if after throwing a TRILLION DOLLARS at all their pet projects along the way, they come to the cliff and learn first-hand that this thing just ain’t gunna fly.
(Since this isn’t a simulated video game and we’re all actually in the car with them, I sure hope I’m wrong, and I must admit: compared to Reid's or Pelosi's tone, I do appreciate the President's ability to "get along well with others" while trying to convince us that a shopping list is the same thing as a pay check.)

Friday, January 16, 2009

Dear President George W. Bush,

In your final address to the nation last night you said , “I will always be honored to carry a title that means more to me than any other: citizen of the United States of America.” But it is my honor to write these thoughts while you officially and exclusively hold the other title you have worn for eight years: the President of the United States.

A few hours ago you stepped aboard Marine One to spend your last weekend at Camp David. At the top of those steps you turned and waved at the crowd as you have done through the years, and I was pleased to see that in spite of the weight of your two terms, you still seem very comfortable in your own skin, and your smile still radiates from something deep within.

It was the same smile my wife and I saw when we met you in Iowa in the summer of ’99 (when I considered your's and your father's presidencies the perfect bookends to hold shut the pulp non-fiction of the eight years in between). My daughter Kim and I saw that smile again as we visited with you in 2000.
We’ve both aged more than eight years since that photo was taken, but I am glad to see that the unspeakable burdens of the Presidency have not taken your Texas smile. It is the perfect complement to the ever-gracious grin of your beautiful wife, Laura.

Of course, not much about any presidency can be defined in terms of smiles. There are far more moments where other emotions prevail. I'll never forget that September day when I stood with co-workers around a TV in our school, far from where any students would see. We watched in horror as the first tower fell, knowing that the second would soon follow. Then the Pentagon was hit, and we collectively held our breath all day wondering “what next?” That night and in the days to follow, my focus and jaw was set like the thousands who enlisted after December 7, 1941.

This visceral urge to fight and die (if need be) in defense of one's home is the untapped (and perhaps uncivilized) energy behind all civilizations. And as illogical as it may seem, I had a secret impulse to drop all other duties and commit fully to the yet-undeclared cause that drew this nation together in those dark days. When you addressed the nation that week, we saw the same desire to defend and preserve, and in your words we were reminded that our duty was to carry on--not to abandon the reasons we wake up, the people we serve, the routines that define our lives, but to carry on unafraid.

We first heard this call to carry on when you stood on that heap of smoldering rubble in Manhattan. A man you’d just then met was hunkered safely under your left arm. A bullhorn in your right hand helped hide your brimming eyes, and with steady, unscripted resolve, you reassured the nation that America would rise from those ashes. And in time we did. So much so that many have forgotten what they felt that day, and I fear what it will take to make them fully appreciate the seven years you oversaw with no other attack on our homeland.
You also warned that we were in a different kind of war, one unlike those waged in the past. This war was driven less by our enemy’s desire to win and more by their intent to make free people live in fear. It was then you understood and helped us understand that only people who know true freedom have the strength to rise up against those who would use fear and terror as a weapon against the world.
In many ways, you stood alone among world leaders in the effort to help the people of Iraq become a free people, but you were not alone. You were surrounded by the strength of legions, brave fighting men and women who were proud to call you their Commander in Chief. I have family and former students proudly serving there. Only time will tell if their tremendous efforts and progress in Iraq, largely unreported by the press, will continue under different leadership. If not, we know who will be blamed. If so, we know that that achievement will somehow be pinned on the chests of those who did the least to make it happen. I believe the latter will be true, and I admire that you care more about that hope of freedom for others than you do about a mention of your name.
It is man--not time--that masks the truth. As the future ever-merges with the past, history sometimes reveals what historians failed to see.
For most of the country, that day in New York City was your defining moment, but there is another moment that few know about that also defines the George W. Bush I will always remember.
It was a tragedy of a different sort (involving smaller airplanes) that occurred just four months before 9-11. I’m reminded of it each school day when I walk past a small memorial garden outside our school’s front door. In April, a missionary friend of mine was shot down in Peru. His wife Roni was a teacher in our school years before they left for the field. I had spoken with them outside my office door just a few months before as they proudly showed us their new baby girl Charity. As you know, in that preventable-but-accidental “shoot down” both Roni and Charity Bowers were instantly killed by the same bullet. The plane crash-landed into the Amazon River. Jim Bowers and his son Cory miraculously survived.
Later that summer, you invited Jim and Cory to the Oval Office. During the visit, you asked secret service and all others to leave the room and you escorted your guests to a small study off the office (a room made infamous during the Clinton impeachment hearings). On a table in that room was an open Bible. You told Jim that since your first week in office you used that room for your daily Bible reading and time of prayer. You asked Jim and Cory if they’d join you that morning. After reading a passage aloud, the three of you prayed together. Understandably, Jim who is a very quiet guy, just listened with bowed head as you prayed for him and his son during their sad loss.
Jim sent an email about it the next day. He did not dwell on this detail, but I was struck by your deliberate and honorable use of that small room. Through the years, I‘ve heard many other stories about your shared faith in quiet ways, one-on-one, with soldiers or those who grieve their loss. You‘ve openly wept with those who weep as Romans 12:15 says we‘re to do.

To understand how a President governs, people must first know what governs his heart--not when the cameras are rolling--but behind closed doors. What governs your heart shows when you reach for Laura’s hand; it shows when you speak of your father; it shows in your brimming eyes and in the smile you brought to and have kept through your presidency; it shows in the respect you have shown for the office you held and in the gracious words you've used in passing that office to your successor. We share your hope for his success in all that's best for this nation, and we pray that he in time will more fully understand the difference between cool confidence and the humble strength that comes in knowing one's own frailty and the feel of the White House floor on bended knees.
Thank you, Mr. President.
.Tom K.,
Added to Assist in Comments Above (January 21, 2009)

These are the county-election-results maps from President Bush's first and second terms. (2000 below and 2004 on top. Double-click to enlarge.)

I realize that "land" does not vote. People vote, and yet these maps are helpful in assessing the geo-political trends of certain "pockets" of the voting population. It is published below the open letter to President Bush to illustrate a point germane to some of the very civil debate in the comments above.

I don't mean to over simplify the election process, but maps such as these do help underscore the enormous influence of Hollywood and the five major coastal cities of California, as well as the news and media outlets of New York. One may also see the leanings of the Hispanic vote in the border areas of southern FL, TX,NM, AZ, and CA. The major urban areas of Detroit, Chicago, Philly, Pittsburg, and other large cities in the Midwest also went Democrat. But obviously the vast majority of voters in what Californians and Easterners call the "fly-over" states went with President Bush. This was barely noted at the time, and even less noted (though probably largely true) in the final years of Bush 43's time in office.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

I'd like to formally introduce readers to a writer I only "met" this past year. (I've linked to her in this and other previous posts.) I have read her regularly enough to know that on many "issues" and religious beliefs we are polar opposites, and some who read here may find her candor in other venues a bit too... well... candid.

But Paglia is the most winsome liberal I read, and what makes her so is the kindness she shows to those with whom she disagrees. One could almost get the impression that she holds in higher regard thinking conservatives who can express an honest opinion than she does liberals who spend their energies bashing conservatives to heights of hypocrisy.

More and more I like this Camille Paglia.

Here is a link to her current op-ed. You'll probably be able to detect the points on which she and I disagree, but I think you'll find her an honest observer of the political and cultural landscape who is unafraid to take on hollow men and women of her generation with opening statements like: "Until I see stronger evidence, I will continue to believe that climate change is primarily driven by solar phenomena."

Her Salon articles are typically three-or-four-pages long each week, but rest assured each page is as interesting as the first.

On page three of this week's thoughts, she speaks somewhat to the point I was making in "Wrong-ophobia" (though she avoids any moral conclusion):

"After the American Psychiatric Association, responding to activist pressure, removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders in 1973, psychological inquiries into homosexuality slowly became verboten. To even ask about the origins of homosexuality was automatically dubbed homophobic by gay studies proponents in the '80s and '90s. Weirdly, despite the rigid social constructionist bias that permeated the entire left, gay activists in and out of academe now leapt on the slightest evidence that could suggest a biological cause of homosexuality.... Yet the intricate family dynamic of every single gay person I've ever known seems to have played some kind of role in his or her developing sexual orientation....But retrospective psychohistory is out these days, and the only game in town is pin the tail on the oppressor."

Friday, January 9, 2009

That Little Voice

By now we all know that President Bush gathered our only living former Presidents to the White House for lunch with in-coming president-elect Obama this past Monday. There was a brief "live" moment recorded on video (seen below), but for the most part all we have is a photo-op of this rare occasion that may not happen again with this many presidents for many decades. (The sad truth is: the next time we see four of them together will likely be at one of their funerals.)

So here are some observations--just for fun. First, let's look at postures. Based on every text book I've ever used in a speech class, Jimmy Carter is modeling the best "speaking stance" of all five men with his outside ankles plumb with his hips. [Technically speaking: Bush 41 is too relaxed with hands in pants; Obama is in what they call the "fig leaf" position; Bush 43 is rolling his ankle like an "awe shucks" nervous kid during show and tell; and Bill Clinton is in second-best form. Below the waist, he is at attention (in both military and Oscar statuette standards) and above the waist he is "at ease" with hands behind his back--not bad for a non-military man.]

Second, let's look at facial expression (in this split-second of time). I think Obama looks most comfortable, followed closely by President Bush in the center. The other three look slightly out of place and time.

Don't you wish you could hear the little voices in their heads. You know what I mean... that inner dialogue you have when you are in a totally unique one-of-a-kind moment and your wife is not there to whisper social etiquette suggestions in your ear. Men will never admit it, but we need that sweet whisper (or gentle kick under the table) when we are in public moments like this. Otherwise we may slip and say the wrong thing like Clinton did.

When most of the cameras had been turned off, Mr. Clinton was caught looking at Mr. Bush, then the floor, then Mr. Bush again. Very somberly, in his broken way, he said: "I ... love ... this ... rug."

I wish that exchange were on video so we could see if the other four men had the same "double-take" cough moment that hit me when I learned that Bill Clinton made a comment about the carpet in what looks to be the oval office (where a similar carpet in 1998 was searched for DNA samples). I can assure you that if Hillary had been there--that little voice would have stopped him from smiling in any direction in that room. That's how "that little voice" works.

It's that little voice that would tell OJ not to make TV infomercials for cutlery.... It's that little voice that would tell Michael Jackson that he should not sign up to be a Big Brother or Big Sister; it's that little voice that tells Senator Larry Criag to refrain from tapping his foot at a square dance. Don't you think that little voice in Bill Clinton's head should have told him that he, of all people, should note make comments about the carpet in that part of the White House?

Enough about that little voice. Here's all we actually have on tape:


Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The Meaning of Parenthetical

If this story is true, it's sad. Say what you will about ol' Joe, but if he was hoping for one last taste of a "normal date" at the movie with his wife before all the hoopla begins... I sure wish they would have found some seats for him.

But the Brad Pitt movie (about an old man growing young)was sold out, and evidently the manager was not quick enough on his feet to creatively problem solve. (Would the same thing have happened to Michelle and Barack Obama? I doubt it.)

It seems like the manager could have said, "Just a moment, Mr. Vice-President Elect," then slipped into the theater with free tickets for two couples in prime seats and discreetly whispered, "Hey, valued customers, you'll never guess who just stepped into our humble theater. How would you like to be a minor part of unrecorded history by allowing me to give you tickets to this and all the other movies you want to see this month just for letting Mr. and Mrs. Biden have a spontaneous date?"

Is it just me or wouldn't most people be honored to do that? Julie and I didn't even vote for him, and we'd be happy to give them our seats. It's possible that he stopped the manager from doing just that. He does seem like the kind of "sport" that would not want such favors publicly granted. [Private quid pro quos are another matter, of course. See post below.]

The saddest thing (if the report is true) is not that Joe's romantic "Scranton, PA" spontaneity didn't play out, but that no one seemed to notice who he was to his face. Awkward... and sort of sad really, but only in the movies can a man grow younger and less odd.

Could ever a man feel more parenthetical? I genuinely hope the Bidens had a good laugh about it as they ducked back into their limo.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

It's All About Quid Pro Quo
The week before Christmas Break, I was asked to cover a history class at our school. After addressing the teacher's lesson plans, we had time for discussion. I chose to change the subject slightly to a term we all need to know in the months ahead. I wrote on the whiteboard three Latin words, quid pro quo, and asked the students if they knew what it meant. To my surprise, many hands went up, and the first student's definition was excellent, though not what I expected:
"It's like when a lady gets a raise or a promotion, and then later on people find out she had to do certain things with the boss in private in order to get picked."
"Wow. That's exactly right in terms of sexual harassment, but we're going to be talking about quid pro quo as it pertains to last week's news story about Illinois Governor Blagojovich who is accused of trying to sell president-elect Obama's senate seat."
They knew more about this story from late-night TV than from the news. (Speaking of late-night TV, has anyone else noticed that "Blago's" ever-present smirk looks like Johnny Carson's?)
Quid pro quo literally means "what for what" in Latin. In other words, "I'll give you this if you give me that." There is not a thing wrong with quid pro quo in its typical legal sense. In fact, it is at the heart of every contract and sales receipt. "Render these services and I'll pay you in exchange." Or... "Give me this amount of money, and I'll sign over the title of my car to you." It becomes an accusation only when people attempt to pretend that there was no quid pro quo involved in an exchange. "Sure, I did get a gift of a million dollars, but that is not why I gave the guy the senate seat." The denial typically does not pass the laugh test.
Some very interesting things have happened since the day I covered that history class. I'm not talking about the fact that the governor defied all of his peers by appointing Obama's replacement in the midst of this investigation; I'm referring to the many other examples of quid pro quo popping up in the news.
We learned today that one of Obama's selected cabinet members had to pull his name from consideration due to questions of illegal quid pro quo.
"New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, tapped in December by President-elect Barack Obama to serve as secretary of Commerce, has withdrawn his name for the position, citing a pending investigation into a company that has done business with his state....A federal grand jury is investigating how a California company that contributed to Richardson's political activities won a New Mexico state contract worth more than $1 billion."
As we know, Hillary Clinton has benn tapped for Secretary of State [click that link to a must-see funny video clip]. But if we've learned anything over the years it's that the Clintons always come with baggage. I wonder if this story about a similar Clintonian quid pro quo will be as troublesome for her as Richardson's case? I doubt it.
"A developer in New York state donated $100,000 to former President Bill Clinton's foundation in November 2004, around the same time that Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton helped secure millions of dollars in federal assistance for the businessman's mall project....Donations to charities favored by lawmakers have been a recent ethics flash point in Congress. In 2007, Congress enacted a law requiring companies and their lobbyists to disclose donations to charities associated with lawmakers. But there is no law requiring former presidents to disclose money they collect for their foundations. Last month, Bill Clinton's foundation revealed the identity of its donors as part of an agreement with President-elect Barack Obama, who selected Hillary Clinton as his nominee for secretary of state.
"Most of the attention on the disclosure list has focused on millions of dollars donated by foreign tycoons and Middle Eastern governments, like Saudi Arabia, which have an interest in the U.S. foreign policy that Mrs. Clinton would direct as the nation's chief diplomat.
But lower on the list was Congel's name,...His contribution is the only known situation so far in which an American donor gave a large sum to Bill Clinton's foundation while benefiting from his wife's official actions...."
Like I said, I doubt the Clintons will have any problems avoiding charges. Likewise for her successor in the senate. Does anyone wonder what quid pro quos will go undiscovered when Hillary's senate seat is handed over to Caroline Kennedy (or whomever gets her seat)? She, too, will get a psss. It's not her countless "you knows" that bother me but rather her lack of substance as she speaks. But more to the point, the New York Times said:
"Like it or not, roughly 7,000 employees of New York City file 32-page disclosure forms each year divulging personal information about their family finances in an effort to bolster confidence in open government. But when Caroline Kennedy was employed by the city Department of Education from 2002 to 2004, as the chief executive of the Office of Strategic Partnerships, she was not required to file...."
Some have explained that it is because she was willing to work for only one dollar per year, but the disclosure is not about taxable income; it's about secret influence over one's decisions and quid pro quo. This is why "Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, a billionaire who takes $1 a year from the city, is required to file disclosure forms each year."
There is nothing shocking about any of these quid pro quo stories. I think the voting public long ago lost faith in the money-driven, self-centered, "what's in it for me" political tactics that have always been the Achilles heel of free elections. What is shocking is that such common behavior is suddenly news worthy and that politicians and big donors aren't closing their blinds as they scratch each other's backs.
Thus far quid pro quo issues have impacted Obama's Chief of Staff, at least two cabinet appointments, and possibly two of his new co-horts in the Senate, but in spite of all the quid pro quo that's hitting the fan, one thing we can be sure of... our unflappable president-elect Obama will not let it break his stride between now and January 20th. No, sir, he knows how to keep it cool.

On a more serious note, regarding some international topics, Obama will not have the luxury of playing it cool after January 20th. The events in the Gaza Strip may force his hand sooner than he wished to sit at the table.

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