Archive for the ‘Current Politics’ Category

The Debt Ceiling “Compromise”

August 1, 2011

The House Republicans take the president and the U.S. economy for a drive:


Updating Election Punditry

November 3, 2010

Real political pundits never do retrospectives of their own predictions. But I am not a real pundit, so I do.

As I write this morning, one of my specific predictions from last week remains up in the air, the Alaskan Senate race. And I missed one entirely: California marijuana went to a stinging defeat, primarily because old people voted and young people couldn’t be bothered. Stoned, maybe? Or they just didn’t care, since the law isn’t enforced anyway?

But my fundamental point, missed by all the pundits I’ve read, that our democracy is conservative and stable is as true today at it was yesterday. Certainly not much will change in Washington over the next two years with political power so evenly divided. The House will pass Republican legislation and send it off to the Senate for burial. The president will propose legislation he knows has no chance of passing and the silly pundits will begin writing nonsense about the 2012 election, which President Obama will lose unless Ben Bernanke succeeds in hurrying the economic recovery along. Apparently money is the only factor that drives American voters.

It all puts me in mind of Abraham Lincoln who said, “Elections are the people’s business and, if they get too close to the fire, they’ll find they have to sit on the blister.”

Beating the Rush – Advance Post-Election Analysis

October 29, 2010

I thought I would beat the rush of punditry about next week’s election and do a retrospective about what it all meant – in advance. Given some of the remarkably silly reporting about this election that we’ve been subjected to for months by political writers desperate for attention, a quick glance at American political history is not out-of-place.

Apparently, the nation, on November 2, 2010, gave the economy back to the people who broke it. The same people who spent the last two years obstructing any real attempts to fix it. John Boehner and Mitch McConnell will misread the results and continue resolutely missing their opportunities to go down in history as great legislators.

But, most of the truly crazy people who were running for office were defeated. The Democrat in South Carolina – wasn’t he under indictment for possessing child porn or something? – was trounced by arch-conservative Jim DeMint. The anti-masturbation candidate in Delaware received a well-deserved drubbing. Three wealthy people spent a quarter of a billion dollars of their own money losing. (A quarter of a billion dollars down the tubes. What were they thinking?) The guy up in Alaska who thinks unemployment insurance in unconstitutional, except when his wife receives it, was returned to his private career. The woman in Nevada who thinks parts of the Midwest are governed by Sharia law narrowly lost to Harry Reid, proving once again that citizens in sparsely populated states know that a senior senator in a position of power trumps a junior minority senator every time when it comes to bringing home the bacon.

Robert M. La Follette

Speaking of the Midwest, a few seats in Congress from that region went to moderate Republicans, a species about which we read many obituaries earlier in the year.

And why did everyone forget about Iraq and Afghanistan?

Of course, a few incompetents won and competent Democrat Jerry Brown of California proved that he is crazy by winning the Governor’s office. Who, in their right mind, would want that job? Although he can get stoned legally now.

So, in this off-year election, the minority party this year, the Republicans – picked up seats in Congress. And, because the economy is not yet back to a full-throated roar, they picked up a few more than they would have otherwise. They will lose some in 2012 and pick up some in 2014, the year that President Obama turns to foreign affairs almost all the time due to his waning domestic political power, something that always happens to two-term presidents.

In other words, nothing much happened in the elections of 2010. America proved again how conservative and stable her democracy is.

Now, if we could just get our political chatterers in the media to pick up a book of American political history, that would be a change worthy of note.

Mrs. Justice Thomas and Anita Hill

October 20, 2010

Wisely, it is said, “No man is a hero to his wife.” Judging from the recent news that Justice Thomas’s wife called Anita Hill last week, demanding an apology from Hill for accusing Justice Thomas of sexual harassment, what we should say is, “No man is a hero to a wise wife.”


Out Goes Desdemona's Olympian Fire (Delacroix Painting)


I have noted in this space before that I am convinced to an abiding certainty that Anita Hill told the truth about Thomas and that he lied to get on the Supreme Court. My conclusion is based on a career spent representing the victims of sexual harassment and a private hour I once spent with one of my clients and Professor Hill. I am far from alone in that conclusion. For another analysis of the evidence, see this column.

Based on that conviction, I would have advised Mrs. Thomas to leave it alone. It happened almost two decades ago,  Clarence Thomas has been on the Supreme Court for a long time and Professor Hill has made a successful career for herself. So, it is passing strange that Virginia Thomas would call Professor Hill last week – at 7:30AM – and leave a telephone message suggesting that Professor Hill pray and then apologize to Justice Thomas.

Strange.  And weird.

Literature, that mirror to reality, abounds with examples of wives who overestimated their husbands. Think of Desdemona who trusted Othello far more than she should have. Or Hamlet’s mother Gertrude. She admired husband number 2 far more than was wise. Real life examples spring to mind as well. Two of Henry VIII’s wives, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, literally lost their heads trusting him.


Anne Boleyn


Mrs. Thomas hasn’t asked for my opinion and wouldn’t accept it anyway, but her husband’s sexual history might be a sleeping dog better left un-kicked. Why would the spouse of a sitting Supreme Court justice bring up that embarrassing past now? One can’t help but think that Justice Thomas wishes she had not made that call. Not that he will ever admit in this life that he lied. He has far too much invested in that lie to tell the truth now. Among other things, his wife might just kill him if he did.

And Mrs. Thomas would do well to heed Hamlet’s description of men to Ophelia, “We are arrant knaves all, believe none of us.

Rattlesnakes and the Evil Weed

October 13, 2010

Before me is the February 1938, edition of Readers’ Digest. In it I learn that President Franklin D. Roosevelt will never be elected to a third term and, from another article, I learn that marijuana is, “. . . as dangerous as a coiled rattlesnake.”


USFWS Photo of Marijuana

USFWS Photo of Marijuana


I note this danger of marijuana for the benefit of all those thinking of legalizing it. (I’m talking to you, California.) Or using it for medicinal purposes. Or health care professionals thinking of prescribing it.

Marijuana is “the assassin of youth.” If you smoke it, according to Mr. H.J. Anslinger, then the head of the U.S. Commission on Narcotics, you won’t know in advance whether you will, “. . . become a philosopher, a joyous reveler, a mad insensate, or a murderer.” Not only that,it can make you, “crawl on the floor and bark like a dog, and do it without a thought of the idiocy of the action.”

The Border Collies resent the implication.


Rattlesnake Disguised as a Killer Weed


Worse, marijuana can turn you into a swine – at least according to Homer as interpreted by Mr. Anslinger. And although 500,000 plants were destroyed in a single raid in Louisiana that year – yes sir, 500,000 plants – the drug was still responsible for the epidemic of murder, rapine, and robberies that apparently were sweeping the Nation in 1938. How many murders, suicides, robberies and maniacal deeds it caused that year, “. . . can only be conjectured.” (The only accurate statement in the article. Mr. Anslinger was big on conjecture.) According to Mr. Anslinger, “There must be constant enforcement and constant education against this enemy, which has a record of murder and terror running through the centuries.”

When I tell you that Mr. Anslinger spent his entire life creating and then running a drug agency for the sole purpose of giving himself a job, you may begin to understand his motivation. He was the grandfather of our incredibly successful “War on Drugs”. You know, that “War on Drugs” that has successfully eradicated marijuana and all other mind-altering drugs from our shores. After only seven decades. And several billion dollars.

But, even if the Reader’s Digest was wrong about marijuana, at least it got it right about Franklin Roosevelt. You will recall that President Wilkie defeated Roosevelt in 1940 when Roosevelt ran for a third term. I forget who defeated President Roosevelt when he ran for a fourth term in 1944. Probably somebody supported by  Reader’s Digest.

Sailing to the Supreme Court

May 12, 2010

Nineteenth century American lawyer Robert Ingersoll once wrote, “If the world ever advances beyond what it is today, it must be led by men who express their real opinions.” Ingersoll lived in a more sexist time. Today he would have written “men and women who express their real opinions.”

Which brings me to Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan.

Apparently, Solicitor General and soon-to-be Justice Kagan has spent her adult life and career studiously avoiding ever publicly revealing an opinion about anything. David Brooks of the New York Times had a perceptive piece about that yesterday, placing General Kagan in a milieu of young people who, possessed of an admirable and clear-minded ambition, began trimming their sails early in their careers in order to serve those ambitions.

Nothing is wrong with selecting and maintaining a supremely clear-headed goal in life and sticking to it. Nor are mid-course corrections anything out of the ordinary. All ships that sail the seas make mid-course corrections. No sailing ship ever gets where it is going without occasionally “tacking” and “wearing” and otherwise trimming her sails.

USS Constitution

However, a ship that does nothing else but trim her sails, never gets anywhere.

That is a challenge for people who end up on the Supreme Court. A lifetime spent avoiding issues is poor training for the Court. It becomes an internalized habit, poorly suited to the job of judging. And, one assumes, that General Kagan has not spent her life trying to become Justice Kagan simply so people will call her, “Justice Kagan.” Presumably, she wants to do something after arriving at the Supreme Court.

The problem is, we have no clue what that something might be, nor can we know whether, after a lifetime of trimming, she knows how to sail anywhere. Perhaps the president knows, but he won’t be telling us. The modern confirmation process consists of senators making boring speeches disguised as questions and the nominee mouthing as many empty platitudes as she can summon while the president studiously avoids saying anything at all.

What we do know is, for the second time in a row, President Obama, lacking the stomach for a confirmation fight, missed the opportunity to put on the Court men and women who did not trim their sails just to get on the Court.

Again a Democratic president timidly surrendered the legal dialogue to conservative, activist firebrands; depressing liberals and progressives. Perhaps worse for the long-term health of the Nation, young idealistic law students all over the nation are taught to keep their mouths shut if they want judicial careers. No matter what your politics, in the end, you have to admit that the Nation is well-served when men and women in public life express their real opinions. That such bright, well-qualified people as General Kagan feel it necessary to hide theirs is a commentary on our times. It remains to be seen if either she or the president can escape their “trimming” habits and do something that truly “advances the world” during their time of power to do so.

I chose the “sail” analogy deliberately so I could paraphrase something that progressive Professor Pamela Karlan – who I wanted nominated and still do – once said. This isn’t a precise quote but it’s close, “Of course, I would like to sit on the Supreme Court, but I wasn’t willing to spend my life trimming my sails to get there.” A great many progressive lawyers across the nation were of the same mind and many possess the intellectual firepower, convictions, and legal skills that are the progressive equivalent of conservatives Scalia and Roberts.

But those lawyers, and Professor Karlan, won’t sit on the Supreme Court. They spend their lives expressing their real opinions.

Unlike General Kagan or the man who has nominated her to the Supreme Court.


The photograph of the USS Constitution under sail was taken by Navy Journalist 2nd Class Todd Stevens and is in the public domain.

Here is more from David Brooks and Gail Collins on this subject. If you agree with the last two paragraphs – as I do – it’s time to start writing senators, presidents, and would-be presidents. In the meantime, in order to save any dwindling chance I have of sitting on the Supreme Court, I’m off to Svalbard.

Kent State

May 4, 2010

Forty years ago today I became a Democrat; I became a progressive; I became a liberal. I didn’t start out that way. Born and raised in the rural West, I started out conservative and it had not worn off by May 4, 1970, when the government murdered four students and shot nine others on the campus of Ohio’s Kent State University. Two of those dead kids gunned down by the Ohio National Guard were protesting President Nixon’s decision, announced four days earlier, to send American troops into Cambodia and Laos.

The other two were walking to class.

Even today, forty years on, I am filled with the emotions of that day: Stunned disbelief that such a thing could happen in the United States of America and powerless rage that it did.

It took a lot to propel me past my conservative upbringing. The only daily newspaper that reached the little town which formed me was owned by a family active in the John Birch Society. The president of the state’s largest university was believed to be a communist, even though he was born and bred on a ranch not eighty miles away. To most, Martin Luther King was a communist agitator and Bobby Kennedy was unspeakably awful. And, most people in my town believed that the only sensible policy in Vietnam was to, “bomb the gooks back to the stone age.”

Perhaps I would have escaped that mind-set even without the Kent State murders, but they added rocket fuel to the journey.

M-1 Rifle Carried at Kent State

I  thought by now that I would have achieved, if not Olympian detachment from those days, at least a short distance from which I could reflect on them more dispassionately, but it hasn’t happened. Impotent rage sits on my shoulder today, just as it did forty years ago. Somewhere my brain knows that two Democratic presidents made the decisions that got us into the Vietnam War and that all but one Democratic senator voted for the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and that Richard Nixon truly did have the responsibility of doing what he could to minimize casualties, given his decision not to end the war quickly.

But the intemperate, foolish governor of Ohio had no such responsibilities. For that matter, neither did the governor of my state who called out the National Guard and sent them to my campus four days later. (Or not. He denies having done it.) The authorities here decided to allow all students to accept passing grades for the semester and go home. Many did, defusing the local crisis. But I didn’t. A  friend and I had a bet that semester about who would get the highest grades so we stayed. Besides we both paid for our college educations out of our own pockets and wanted to get our money’s worth. (As for the contest, we could have left early: It was a tie.)

President Nixon Explaining the Cambodia "Incursion"

As for the National Guard on my campus, I offer eye-witness testimony that they came with bayonets fixed. I assume, but don’t know, that they – like the Ohio National Guard – had been issued live ammunition as well. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

I see in the official history of the guard here, they were sent to quell the “student riots.” Odd. I don’t remember any “riots”, although I do remember protests.

I need to be clear: I was never a member of that vociferous, misguided minority who took out their rage about the Vietnam War on those brave young Americans who fought it. Two friends and one relative died there, another received a Bronze Star, my sister confronts to this day the aftermath of what she endured there, and I know and have known many others who served honorably and well in Vietnam. The war and the murders at Kent State were no more their responsibility than mine.

Vietnam Womens' Memorial

America suffered almost as many casualties on President Nixon’s watch as on Kennedy’s and Johnson’s combined. I thought then and think now that Nixon drug his feet far, far too long. He ran promising to end the war and he should have ended it in his first year in office. Not a whit of world history would have changed and a great deal of death and human suffering would have been avoided. (Of course, when the country elected him, it did not yet know that he was a congenital liar.) Nobody knows for sure how many Vietnamese were killed in their civil war into which we stumbled and bumbled, but fewer would have died had we departed in 1969 instead of waiting for that last degrading exit from the roof of the American Embassy, thirty-five years ago last week.

I know that the universe is not in the business of justice; I know that other students were murdered before (Orangeville) and after (Jackson State); I know that other, far worse atrocities have been committed; but Kent State was my personal awakening atrocity and still I rage and still I wonder: How could such a thing have happened in the United States of America?


Most of the photos taken that day in Ohio are still in copyright and while I imagine that the photographers, both student and professional, would not mind if I used their photos under “fair use” exceptions, I choose not to. But the photos are widely available and here are links to several that illustrate the folly of that day. Here you’ll see an unarmed, flag-waving student while guardsmen kneel seconds before opening fire. Here is the Pulitzer Prize winning photograph by John Filo of the young lady kneeling over one of the dead and screaming. The closest student was at least 30 yards away and one of the kids killed was at least 400 feet away. No student was armed.

For more on the events leading up to that day and the day itself, see this page and its links.

For Vietnam War casualties, the Wikipedia page seems reliable.

The photo of the M-1 rifle is in the public domain. It is one of the rifles carried that day by the Ohio National Guard that now resides at the Smithsonian. Not every artifact in the Smithsonian is glorious.

The photo of the Vietnam Womens’ Memorial is by MBisanz. For more on the 265,000 women, all of whom volunteered for service in Vietnam, go here.

The Supreme Court’s Campaign Finance Decision

February 1, 2010

After making us wait for months, the Supreme Court did exactly what almost all observers predicted, ruling in a 5-4 split decision that corporations can spend as much money as they want in political campaigns. Not surprisingly, the opinion got a lot of news coverage, and, more surprising, a visible reaction from Justice Alito when President Obama lambasted the opinion during the State of the Union speech. (Frank Rich of the New York Times referred to Alito’s “delicate sensibilities.”)

2010 State of the Union Message

Speculating about what the Court does behind its closed doors is like metaphysical conjecture: Nobody knows for sure.

But, like metaphysical speculation, it can be fun to guess. For instance, why did the Chief Justice, Justice Thomas, and Justice Scalia feel a need to write separately, adding pages and pages to Justice Kennedy’s already long majority opinion? The answer almost certainly lies in their knowledge that the majority opinion is a breathtaking exercise in judicial activism. These are the justices who falsely proclaim their judicial modesty, but in this case go far out of their way to decide the constitutional issue on the broadest basis possible.

To summarize, they wrote, “We had to decide this case as broadly as possible because we had to.” And, yes, that is a tautology. On the merits, the majority said, “Money is speech, corporations are people; therefore, corporate money gets First Amendment protection.”  Seriously. That is the Readers’ Digest version of the holding. (I don’t know why they don’t put me on the Court. I don’t use nearly as many words to get to a result. “Omit needless words,” said Professor Strunk.)

Justice O'Connor

And the only member of the majority who chose not to write, Justice Alito, was the one visibly offended when the President took the Court to task for upending American political campaigns. In the realm of fascinating speculation must go, “What does Sandra Day O’Connor think of her replacement (Alito) and does she regret resigning from the Court?” I’m guessing the answers are, “not much” and “yes.”

Less speculation is required about the dissent. As the senior member of the dissenting minority, Justice Stevens assigned the writing of the dissent to himself. He probably will retire at the end of this Term and the dissent may be the last opinion on a major issue that Stevens writes. Moreover, he clearly has the better legal argument, so knows that his opinion will one day — when good political sense again commands a majority of the Court — be the law of the land. Dissenting opinions are often written for the future, the author assuming that his view will prevail eventually.

Justice Stevens was more persuasive than Justice Kennedy for another reason: None of the dissenters felt a need to write separately. In that regard, Stevens is better than Chief Justice Roberts at keeping his troops in line.

Being Chief Justice is like herding cats. Unless you are a Border Collie, there is little hope. We haven’t really had a Chief Justice since Earl Warren who was much good at it. In fact, the Chief Justice gave us a clue about the frustrations of the job recently. During an oral argument this month, Solicitor General Elena Kagan inadvertently called Justice Scalia, “Mr. Chief Justice.” She immediately caught the mistake and said to Scalia, “I didn’t mean to promote you.” The Chief Justice jumped in, “I’m glad someone thinks of it as a promotion.”  I imagine he’s having a hard time with his brethren.

He needs some Border Collies.


For a thoughtful, serious analysis of the President’s words about the opinion and Justice Alito’s response, look at this from SCOTUSblog.  Here is the opinion itself, all 183 pages of it.

The Supreme Court Returns

January 10, 2010

The Supreme Court’s Christmas vacation comes to an end this week. (They get longer vacations than the rest of us.) The clerk’s office has indicated that opinions will be issued on Tuesday and Wednesday of this week, probably because the justices are feeling a little guilty that they got a month off and we only got a few days. They won’t take another long break now until the end of June when they’ll take three months off which, if you do the math, means they get four months a year of vacation.

Actually, I’m being unfair. The Court works even when not in session and they are busy. Justice Souter once noted that coming to work at the Supreme Court was a like walking into a tidal wave. Justice Douglas, on the other hand, once remarked that the Justices wouldn’t be nearly as busy if they would just read the Constitution from time to time. Still, I imagine that Justice Scalia worked in a tennis game or two during the last month.

The political classes are on pins and needles because they are expecting a decision in the campaign finance case this week, the one that was argued — for the second time — back in September.

If you think — as I do — that big money now plays a baleful role in the Nation’s politics, look to be disappointed again. The Court is likely to strike down more attempts at campaign finance reform and hand America’s biggest corporations and unions another victory.

Those of us who think serious reform is required to get our political system back on track will do well to remember the words of the tennis star Vitas Gerulaitis. He lost sixteen consecutive matches to Jimmy Connors before finally winning one. Gerulaitis said afterward,

“And let that be a lesson to you all. Nobody beats Vitas Gerulaitis 17 times in a row!”

We’ll win one someday.
The photo of the U.S. Open was taken by  Stan Wiechers.

Afghanistan and the Spanish Civil War

October 19, 2009

Rereading George Orwell’s memoir of his experiences in the Spanish Civil War reminded me of the current debate about what to do next in Afghanistan.  A relative thinks we should just “win.”  Unfortunately, nobody knows what that means.  Orwell had a clear-eyed view of what is and what is not possible in war and was scathing about news coverage of wars.  He not only went to Spain to cover the war as a journalist, he enlisted in the fight against the fascists and was shot.  Here is what he had to say about war debates:

“One of the most horrible features of war is that the war-propaganda, all the screaming and lies and hatred, comes invariably from people who are not fighting.”