Saturday, May 30, 2009

Sotomayor need not be a GOP dilemma

By Don Klein

I look forward to the confirmation hearings of the Senate Judiciary Committee when they evaluate the qualifications of federal appeals Judge Sonia Sotomayor as a nominee to the Supreme Court. Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich, among others, are trying to make it a showdown between strict constitutional constructionists and what they like to deride as activist justices, or even worse, liberal jurists.

What is significant is that neither Rush nor Newt are elected officials and those who are, like the Republicans members of the Senate committee, and eventually all Republican members of the Senate, have to go back eventually to the voters and ask to be reelected. None of them have spoken out against her in significant ways so far.

If they reject her, how will they explain their action to voters?

How will anyone be able to vote against Sotomayor for this important position and not be accused of gender prejudice? How will you explain to the millions of new Hispanic voters in the country – and that number keeps growing – that you tried to stop the first Latina ever to be nominated to the highest court in the land?

The backlash could be brutal and lasting. Minorities don’t easily forget personal slights.

The simple rule in politics is that it is best not to make enemies of large voting blocs, especially if they are, like Latino-Americans, the largest growing ethnic group in the nation. If the Republicans sink Obama’s selection of Sotomayor, the party could become a permanent minority party.

But that wouldn’t bother Limbaugh. He is a broadcaster who thrives on throwing bric-a-bracs at politicians and he has a much wider variety of targets when the Democrats are in power. We can dismiss Gingrich as a colossal hypocrite. While he was publicly reprimanding Bill Clinton for having an affair while president, Gingrich was canoodling with a young staff member in his office. Why anyone listens to him is beyond comprehension.

There are other reasons not to torpedo the Sotomayor appointment. If opponents pick out of context her words that can be twisted to sound like she has preferences of one sort or another, they can just look back at the treatment given Samuel Alito and John Roberts when they faced confirmation. The Democrats held their noses and voted for the nominees because they were the choices of the then president.

That is what politics is all about. That is why many people worked so hard for Obama’s success in 2008. They felt certain a Supreme Court nomination would occur in the coming presidential term and they wanted a progressive member of the court, not another Antonin Scalia. Choosing judges to serve on the federal bench is the responsibility of the president and virtually every nominee who did not withdraw on their own, has been approved.

My gosh, even Clarence Thomas, the numskull of the Supreme Court with all his negatives known ahead of time, was approved by the Senate, to its eternal ignominy.

If Republican conservative activist justices like Roberts, Alito and Scalia can make the grade, so can one outspokenly progressive justice like Sotomayor. The courts need balance to keep it from shaming the country again as it did in its ruling on the 2000 national election dispute.

At this time I don’t know enough about Sotomayor to make a sensible assessment on her nomination. I know little about her. She has not testified on Capitol Hill and that is the important part of the procedure. We should all listen carefully to what she says and make a determination afterwards. There are questions I would love to ask her if I could.

1. Being a Catholic, does she feel abortion is infanticide and should be banned?

2. On the subject of religion, she would become the sixth Catholic justice on the current court. Given that fact, would her official decisions be based on religious beliefs or will she evaluate issues without consideration of church doctrine?

3. I would like her to explain her position on affirmative action, especially how it influenced her decision in the infamous New Haven firefighters case.

Why conservatives are so worked about her is strange indeed. Her ascent to the court will not alter the current balance. She will be replacing Associate Justice David Souter, another progressive. As far as court decisions are concerned there will be little difference from now so why should Republicans be lathered up over her? It’s the next appointment, if replacing a conservative, that will really count.

In the end, it is no great revelation that Sotomayor is a liberal. Almost anyone who was brought up in the Bronx, especially the South Bronx, would lean towards liberal politics. It is almost the same for someone like Chief Justice John G. Roberts, who grew up in Long Beach, Indiana, being a conservative.

So if she is rejected on those grounds, an unlikely possibility to be sure, the president will simply appoint another liberal candidate. There will be no Thomases, Alitos or Scalias from this president. So my advice to her Senate opponents is to brace yourself, suck in your chest, and vote "Yeah" when your name is called because you cannot stop the steam roller of progress set in motion last election when conservatives were soundly rejected by voters and are currently leaderless in the Senate.

And there are benefits to doing so. You will not anger the largest growing voter bloc in the nation, you will show the world that Rush and Newt do not run your party and you will start on the road to recovering the dignity and class Republicans once had, but threw away when they embraced the Bush-Cheney regime.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

A bridge in Brooklyn for sale

By Don Klein

So you expected a vast change in direction for the country after the November election sweep by the Democrats who won not just the presidency, but the House of Representatives and the Senate? I suppose recent actions in Washington has brought you back to earth.

Although I lean towards the Democrats in general because I feel in most cases they are more concerned with the welfare of the public rather than guaranteeing unbridled profits of huge corporations who the Republicans usually support, I am often disappointed in the behavior of Democrats at crucial moments in history.

I recall with dismay the fact that all but one of the Senate Democrats in October 2002, including such stalwarts and Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, voted in favor of the Bush legislation which authorized the inexcusable war in Iraq. Although they all insisted since that they were misled by the powers of the day, they really voted in favor of the war because they feared being stigmatized as soft on terror at the next election.

It seems being reelected is a more important priority for spineless politicians than doing what is right for the people. The Democrats are too anemic too often for my taste. They share a portion of the blame with the Republicans for the many deaths of US troops and foreign civilians in the Iraq conflict.

Today, when it is safe to oppose the war because the overwhelming majority of voters have turned against the conflict, these intrepid Democrats are all on the right side of the issue. They deserve no praise for their stance. Fortunately, this hypocracy does not include President Obama, who was against the war from the beginning. But he did not hold federal office at the time the relevant vote was taken.

You would have thought the fat-cat Democrats would have learned something from that ill-fated issue. But no, they are back at their wishy-washy ways again. While on the one hand they introduced legislation in Congress to require registration of guns and rifles, when it came down to voting on a unrelated matter they again went astray. They voted overwhelmingly in favor of an amendment to the credit card bill which allows loaded firearms to be carried on national parks property.

And we simple citizens thought the Democrats, with a strong majority in the Congress, could stop such underhanded and malicious legislative maneuvering. But this is a National Rifle Association issue and most senators lack the courage of a ladybug when it comes to thwarting the will of well organized and financially sound political action groups. I call it cowardice, but no one in Washington seems to care.

Then we come to the matter of closing the Guantanamo prison camp, a promise made by the Democratic Party’s own president before he was elected. Here is another case of categoric cowardice. Opponents of the plan circulated the ridiculous concept that more than 200 dangerous captives would be brought to US shores among the American populace if the Cuban base was closed.

The proponents of keeping the prison camp open and continuing the Bush policy of questionable legal detention of alleged terrorists were using the same fear tactic that Bush and Cheney had employed so effectively since 9/11. It was built on the basis that anything was justified in protecting Americans from another attack, even violation of the US Constitution. In order to keep Guantanamo open they had to destroy any hopeful Obama plan to close the camp.

They sold the idea of terrorists on American soil as a threat to every civilian in the country. But the fact is that these terrorists would never be set free in the US. The plan was to house them in maximum security federal prisons, from which no one has ever escaped, and try them in American courts. These facts obviously didn’t matter when timid Democratic senators voted overwhelmingly to deny the administration the funds needed to close Guantanamo.

Again the Democrats were craven at the thought of being painted weak on terror and endangering Americans by bringing these prisoners to US prisons. Gutlessness took over once again.

Worse, such shallow commitment to doing what is right when weighed against getting reelected will endanger everything that the Democrats hoped to do in Congress this term.

Before the year is over Obama hopes to pass a universal health care bill. It would not be unreasonable to think that such needed legislation might be jeopardized if Republican opponents can find an issue that would be construed by some as antithetical to the country’s welfare. They already did as much back in the Clinton years when they killed off a health care bill with a television campaign of misstatements and twisted facts.

This is what we all have to fear. If weak-kneed Democrats cannot stand on the decent principle of banning guns in national parks and funding the closing of Guantanamo, what can we expect from them on important and expensive matters like universal health care, establishing controls over business, carrying on the war in Afghanistan and delivering a greener country to us all?

Or even worse. How strongly will they support an Obama supreme court nominee if the GOP defines him to the public unflatteringly as nothing but a socialist tool?

If you are guileless enough to believe just because the Democrats hold a majority in both houses of Congress that every thing Obama promised during the campaign will come to fruition, I have a bridge in Brooklyn I’d be happy to sell to you.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Falling on her face

By Don Klein

These are gloomy times. The economy is in the toilet. Banks are on the ropes and General Motors is tottering. Too many have lost their jobs and are unable to latch on to new ones. Unemployment is higher than it has been in decades. Retirement savings have disappeared. The war in Afghanistan is heating up and we are still taking casualties in Iraq.

But wait, not all is despair. There is someone doing her best to break through the negatives and cheer us up. Why should we be depressed? All is not lost. We are being entertained by the class clown, the wicked wench of the mid-west, Michele Bachmann.

She provides one laugh after another. Just what we need in bad times. She is equivalent to the Three Stooges during the Great Depression providing slapstick humor. She is better than them, she falls on her face – figuratively – all by herself, she needs no partners.

Ms. Bachmann, in case you didn’t know it, is a second term Republican congresswoman from Minnesota who was elected in 2006, the year the GOP lost control of Congress. Recently she came up with a discovery, a "unique coincidence" she called it. How come, she wondered out loud, the last time there was a threat of Swine Flu the president was a Democrat, just like today.

"I find it interesting that it was back in the 1970s that the Swine Flu broke out then under another Democrat president, Jimmy Carter. And I'm not blaming this on President Obama, I just think it's an interesting coincidence," she announced to the world.

The loopy lady from Minnesota was trying to make partisan points and didn’t realize her flu observation wouldn’t have been "interesting" even if it were true. The fact is the last Swine Flu scare occurred during Republican President Gerald Ford’s term of office. The joke was on her but we all got a good laugh out of it.

What Bachmann needs to do is rent a clown’s baggy pants, stick a big red rubber ball on her nose, put on floppy 24-inch shoes and wear a wild yellow wig to really get the crowd warmed up. A little exaggerated clown’s make-up wouldn’t hurt either.

What makes Bachmann so funny (or more correctly, pathetic) is that she shouts out charges without checking the facts, then when proven incorrect, does not admit it. Such was the case when she accused Democratic congressman, Keith Ellison, a Muslim, of consorting with terrorists.

Referring to a group of imams arrested in the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport some years ago, she explained, "The imams... were actually attending, ah, Congressman Keith Ellison’s victory celebration, when he won as a member of Congress."

Bachmann talked about terror-related accusations that had been made against the six imams, not mentioning that these allegations had since been disproved. The fact was that nervous airline passengers had apparently misinterpreted the imams’ praying as reminiscent of the 9/11 hijackers’ patterns. The imams were in Minnesota to attend a conference—not a victory party.

Ellison responded: "This is not true. I think it could even be psycho-talk."
A Bachmann spokesman defended her statement while admitting that "the details may be a little rough." A little batty would be a better description.

Bachmann is not always funny, in fact at times she is very cruel. She spoke on the House floor about the dangers of hate-crimes legislation. Protecting gay victims of crime, to her, means protecting pedophiles. A pedophile in Bachmann’s view is someone who is gay, or a transgender, or a cross-dresser. That is who hate crime laws protects, she contended.

It wasn’t the first time Bachmann equated gays with child molesters. In 2004, she told a talk-radio host that same-sex marriage is dangerous because "it is our children who are the prize for this community, they are specifically targeting our children."

We know of Bachmann’s total contempt for reality and her ability to solve many critical problems by branding those whom she politically disagrees with with unsubstantiated accusations. She is often outrageous, like the long-time polemic critic of liberals, Ann Coulter.

As H.L. Mencken, who chastised politicians for being rogues, vagabonds, frauds and scoundrels, once said about elected officials: "They never get there on merit alone...Sometimes, to be sure, it happens but only by a kind of miracle. They are chosen normally for quite different reasons, the chief of which is simply their power to impress and enchant the intellectually underprivileged."

Bachmann an enchantress? Hardly, she is more of a riddle. Her constituency intellectually underprivileged? Not at all. She comes from a state which traditionally sends brilliant people onto the national scene. Senators Hubert Humphrey, the father of civil rights in Congress, Walter Mondale, served as vice president to Jimmy Carter and later ran for president, and Paul Wellstone, a progressive of considerable stature, are good example of Minnesotans who earned great marks nationally.

What has happened to Minnesota after all these years that now we are treated to the buffoon-like behavior of Bachmann? Could it be a post-Bush hangover or a wicked accident of fate? Is she a celestial angel in disguise sent to America to remind us of the dangers inherent in a political process that caters to nonsense? Is it a case of extremes, with Obama at the top and Bachmann at the bottom?

She is living proof that it is time that Americans stop sending kooks to Washington, but that is unlikely to change. As Menckin said: "One of the merits of democracy is quite obvious: it is probably the most charming form of government ever devised by man." In other words, style trumps content.

We often delude ourselves with images of crusading knights on white chargers doing God’s work in Washington only to end up with just another version of the Michele Bachmanns of the world.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

A memorable occasion or not?

By Don Klein

Abortion is an combustible topic. Adherents on both sides of this issue are often too passionate to really illuminate the subject. Few really stop and examine what is really at stake.

When the 1973 landmark Roe vs. Wade ruling of the Supreme Court was issued it did not outlaw anything. It did not force anyone to do anything. Unlike most laws, it is not restrictive. It liberated pregnant women to do what they felt was right in early pregnancy. It left the decision of abortion in the hands of women.

Most significantly it took abortion off the criminal docket. No patient or health provider would be prosecuted for participating in an abortion. It legalized the right to choose. At the same time it did not prohibit those who opposed this right from not seeking abortions. No one was required to have an abortion.

It could, in a most extreme of example, be compared to the right of legal representation when accused of a crime. All citizens have a right to a lawyer even if they cannot afford one, but not all defendants exercise that option. They are free to appear in court without an attorney, although that might not be very wise.

We have many rights that we don’t use and no one gets worked into a frenzy over them. We have the right to travel freely all over the country but many never use it. We have a right to send our children to public schools, but some parents find alternatives. We have a right to vote and don’t always go to the polls. Those are just a few rights we don’t use.

Yet no one goes into a tantrum when others exercise the very rights we might ignore. Not so with abortions. Why is that? Because in the case of abortion we run into religious principle. That brings up the next question. Why should religious belief matter in a country which prides itself in separation of church and state and which in all other matters of religion is extremely tolerant?

That’s a hard question to answer when talking about abortion, but it is based on the fact that opponents of Roe vs. Wade hope to repeal the law by consistent and virulent confrontation at every level possible.

The current Notre Dame controversy over whether to have invited the president of the United States to address university graduates this spring and to offer him an honorary law degree is a case in point. Opponents are taking a misguided political stance to promote their resistance to abortion rights.

Barack Obama believes that the federal government has no place in dictating to women whether to have an abortion or not. That is a personal matter out of reach of government and therefore he leaves the subject to the conscience of individuals to deal with. He would agree to counseling against having abortions, but would not try to ban the procedure.

There are many people who think that stance is balanced and a pretty fair approach to the subject of abortion. Advise against the practice, but avoid prohibition. That to me covers both sides of the extremely volatile issue. However, to those who have an emotional attachment to banning abortions or have religious objections, it does not seem to be enough.

So based on Obama’s stand on abortion, an element of the university’s students, faculty and alumni are audibly opposed to even inviting him to the South Bend commencement ceremony.

In putting this into perspective, we must recall that every president from Dwight D. Eisenhower on has been invited to speak at Notre Dame. Actually, it is a distinct honor to have the president come to any school to deliver an address. Most institutions of higher learning never get such a lofty visitor.

Obama is doing the correct thing. He is holding his peace while others deliberate over the wisdom of the invitation. Notre Dame, a Catholic institution, follows the dictums of the Vatican which is flatly and unambiguously opposed to abortions. It claims it violates church law and is immoral.

It is a single issue objection. There is no other reason given by those in resistance to the president’s visit. It is foolish to think that not receiving an honorary degree from Notre Dame would matter much to Obama, a graduate of Columbia University and Harvard Law School and the one time editor of the distinguished Harvard Law Review – and now US president and the most powerful man in the world.

Actually, there are many who think fighting legal abortions is beating a dead horse. During the eight years of the Bush administration, when the president was an outspoken adherent of the so-called right to life movement, there was no attempt to reverse Roe vs. Wade even when the majority of Supreme Court justices were Catholic. It seems most politicians are not willing to move on this issue for fear of voter recriminations on election day. All they are willing to do is offer lip service to appease the anti-abortion activists.

It will be interesting to see the outcome at Notre Dame. Will the university stand up for academic independence and free expression in a temple of learning or will it succumb to the wishes of those embittered zealots who feel that a president who has a different opinion on this subject should be denied the honor a university of stature has to bestow?

Of course as Americans they are free to disagree with any opinion, including the president’s, but instead of being discordant wouldn’t it be more useful to greet and listen to a honorable man of great personal achievement, of historic accomplishment and perhaps the most eloquent orator of these times. His speech might well be a memorable moment in the lives of those in attendance.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Uncivilized? Who us?

By Don Klein

The news reports were harsh and sobering. First, 89 killed in multiple attacks one recent Thursday in Iraq. Then at least 60 more died outside a revered Baghdad religious shrine the next day. Close to 150 dead in two days by acts of merciless Iraqi suicide murderers. Another 50 died a few days later

"Isn’t it awful what they are doing to themselves over there," I could hear many an American housewife say to her husband after listening to the TV report. "A bunch of animals those Muslims. They waddle in spilled blood," her husband would no doubt respond. Then they would resume their dinner.

They speak of the violence overseas with the concern of one who believes themselves above such malevolence. Their superior attitude is tinged with disgust because such behavior is uncivilized. They like to believe such conduct would not be tolerated here. Yet these very same Americans are likely to sit peacefully in their comfortable suburban homes and cluck their tongues when young Americans die senselessly every day in this country – and often times in a burst of absurd brutality not much different than what happens in the Middle East.

Every year about 12,000 are shot to death on American streets, in neighborhood schools, in work places, even in churches while attending religious services. That is four times the number who died in the attacks on September 11, 2001. Guns are the favorite death-delivering weapon in America representing seventy percent of all murders in the country.

Yet John Citizen and his wife, Mary, just sit around and take it like it was just another day in the park. Kids killing kids, disgruntled husbands slaughtering their families. A disturbed immigrant shooting down other immigrants in a citizenship class. The first thing angry men do is gather the family weapons and load up with ammunition and off they go who go on rampages looking for innocent victims.

Most of the time we never learn why they do these awful things because they take their own lives after they satisfy their thirst for blood and armed police arrive to confront them. There is nothing more cowardly then to attack unarmed people without reason and then end their own lives when people arrive who can fight back.

But cowardice is not the subject of this essay. Guns are. So is the seemingly American tolerance for the right of all citizens, including the psychologically unsound and the brooding irrational loner, to bear arms in their homes. "I believe in the Second Amendment," we hear gun lovers shout at every instance someone suggests gun control. They say if we banned guns it wouldn’t stop career criminals from getting them. That might be true, but so what?

It has reached the point that it is not the criminals who do the most heart-wrenching gun harm in this country. There were no career criminals involved in Columbine High School slaughter. Son of Sam was not a career criminal. The weirdos who went around shooting abortion doctors were not career criminals. There are too many ostensibly "ordinary" people who cause great damage with their guns.

Even Lee Harvey Oswald was not a career criminal, nor was his executioner, Jack Ruby. But they both had no trouble buying guns for their iniquities.

One of the most daunting facts is that in Virginia where an unhinged student killed 32 people at Virginia Tech just two years ago, the state has not yet enacted any laws prohibiting the free and unregulated access to weapons at gun shows. What an insult to the victims who were memorialized so tearfully by the nation at the time of the debacle.

Where are the hearts of the local politicians in this matter?

I’ll tell you where – they are with the National Rifle Association and the gun-loving minority in this country. Although the majority of Americans favor gun control of some manner, politicians follow the NRA money and influence. There is a malignancy in this country when it comes to guns.

It all started when our founding fathers assembled in Philadelphia after the Revolution and put together in 1789 a document which would govern the way future governments will behave. They made several mistakes, one was not outlawing slavery, the other was in the Second Amendment of the Bill of Rights. The Civil War corrected the slavery issue, but the Second Amendment calling for the right of individuals to bear arms persists.

This amendment was included in the Constitution at a time when the United States was in its infancy and when its populace lived on a frontier just moments away from harm by ferocious wild animals or hostile Indians or marauding gunmen. There was no effective police force available at the other end of a 9-1-1 call and the US cavalry at best was days away.

Certainly the right to carry arms made sense at the time. But who among us have to concern themselves today with grizzly bears on our front lawn or have to ward off rampaging enemies on the way to the supermarket? The Second Amendment is no more valid today than is the Eighteen Amendment prohibiting the sale of alcoholic beverages. The difference is the latter was repealed in 1933.

It doesn’t look like whatever mayhem happens in our schools, or streets, or to our elected officials, or to our police, or in our office buildings will ever be taken seriously enough to repeal the Second Amendment. Making guns available to every Tom, Dick and Harry is the American Way.

Like the old axiom about not throwing stones if you live in a glass house, Americans will yawn when the subject of controlling guns in our communities comes up but will be outraged every time there is an outburst of deadly bombings in the Middle East as they remind themselves how uncivilized those damn Arabs are.