Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The good, the bad, the ugly

by Don Klein

In a few days the new year will be upon us making it appropriate to look back on the noteworthy year of 2009. It was historic for a number of major reasons, but I also see a healthy (or rather, unhealthy) quantity of the good, bad and ugly when I recall the happenings of the past 12 months.

Let’s take the ugly first in order to end on an upbeat. We had more than the usual share of ugliness in the country this past year. Sadly I feel the prize for the ugliest goes to former senator and Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards. He was at the controls of his own woeful political train wreck.

I place him on the top of bad boys because he was the one who promised us the best for the future in public service and responsibility. He was a man who as a lawyer fought for the little guy all his life. He was a man of great ideals, was presidential in his bearing and spoke convincingly and intelligently about a new vision of national caring. In short he was beguiling.

But he had feet of clay and proved in the end to be much more than just a disappointment. He was deceitful in concealing an affair of passion with a film contractor who worked for him during the primary campaign and had apparent little regard for the public he would have served if elected by hiding the illicit relationship. All this while his ailing wife, Elizabeth, battled Stage IV breast cancer.

When it came to people with zipper problems, Edwards was not alone. There was Governor Mark Sanford of South Carolina, who let everyone believe he was hiking in Appalachia when actually he had ran off sniffing after his Argentine paramour.

Even worse, there was Senator John Ensign of Nevada, who cuckolded his own assistant while pillow cuddling with the subordinate’s wife, who also worked for the senator. How low can you get having sex with the wife of a staff member, then try to buy them both off when the scandal broke. Ensign has to be the sleaziest of the sleazy.

Then there was the since-impeached Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich allegedly attempting to sell the senatorial seat vacated when Barack Obama was elected president.

There also was what is becoming run-of-the-mill congressional criminal conspiracy and bribery cases as former Congressmen William J. Jefferson of Louisiana and "Duke" Cunningham of California were convicted and imprisoned for selling their legislative influence.

Perhaps the wickedest of all frauds were perpetrated by Bernard Madoff, the Wall Street insider who bilked scores of gullible people and organizations, including some giant well-known charities, out of billions of dollars in an elaborate Ponzi scheme. He is now where he belongs – in jail.

So much for the ugly, how about the bad. I can think of lots of bad. The recession was, of course, the worst. Then there was the wide scale unemployment that threw millions out of jobs. There was the inexcusable obstructionist behavior of Congressional Republicans who earned the title "Party of No."

How any self-respecting political party can hold its head up and be proud of being against everything, especially in these terrible times of stress and conflict, is beyond me. I must agree with the argument that not only did eight years of Republicans in power put this country in the ditch, but now the GOP won’t even lend a hand in digging us out of the hole they placed us.

And who is calling whom un-American?

On the good side of the ledger we can all be happy that George W. Bush was only president for 20 days during 2009. That was a positive for the rest of us. President Obama stepped into one of the worst times to be chief executive in the history of the US, probably only surpassed by Abraham Lincoln facing a civil war and Franklin D. Roosevelt starting off in the midst of an expanding depression.

Right after being sworn in Obama struck down torture as US policy, promised to close Guantanamo, signed into law a bill giving women equal pay and launched into hopeful solutions to the economic crisis with a monumental stimulus program. In the summer he won the Nobel Peace Prize.

The most gruelling accomplishment was the passage of different health care bills in the House of Representatives and the Senate. The legislation raises a serious problem since there are some glowing differences – public option in the House and not in the Senate and a variance on abortion restrictions. The major battle on this measure is yet to come in 2010.

In the end, 2009 was not that great a year. Paul Krugman, of The New York Times, dubbed the entire first decade of the century "The Big Zero," but that’s not entirely true. Good things did happen, perhaps not enough to outweigh the bad. The decade ended with the historic election of the first non-white president of the United States and with the country on a moral rebound from eight years of deceit and international disfavor.

Unfortunately 2009 was the year of the emergence of absurd off-the-wall TV commentaries by Glenn Beck, the year they buried Ted Kennedy, the year of the phony emergencies like the balloon boy and Tiger Woods stonewalling himself into disfavor. It was the year that Kate and Jon Gosselin and their brood of eight gratefully disappeared from the TV screens, hopefully forever.

My vote for man of the year is Barack Obama. For woman of the year, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. My vote for scoundrel of the year, Sen. Joe Lieberman. Recurring Pest of the year, Sarah Palin. Dolt of the year, Rush Limbaugh.

It was a year (with apologies to Clint Eastwood) of the good, the bad and the ugly. Whether you agree or not with these assessments, standby. The new year is almost certain to bring another version of the same. It’s the human condition.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

When did we lose democracy?

By Don Klein

The British Parliament enacted legislation that will tax bonuses to employees of financial institution to the tune of 50 percent. The French are planning to do the same. They refuse to allow banking leeches who were largely responsible for the financial crisis under which millions suffer to continue to draw blood from a suffering society.

Don’t expect any restrictive action vaguely resembling our overseas friends ever happening in the US. We have a Congress that doesn’t represent the people. The national legislature is bought and owned by the bankers and large corporations. It is not the land of the free and home of the brave we learned about in grade school.

Land of the free? Home of the brave? Really? If you think that describes today’s America, humbug. To Congress there’s a new definition. The term "land of the free" means that big concerns have the free use of the American economy sans penalty or restrictions. And "home of the brave" refers to the rest of us who have the painful right to suffer silently while the greedy bask in unearned rewards.

The parasites that inhabit Wall Street take their immense payoffs whether they make profits or not. They earn money with the thanks of the American taxpayer who bailed them out of tragic circumstances and then the ingrates raise interest rates on credit, boosts prices for services and pay their own flunkeys unconscionable bonuses.

They thumb their collective noses at the rest of us by using every bit of pressure (spelled: money) they can muster to impair corrective Congressional action. They payoff key members of Congress with campaign donations to insure they remain in office. That is their interpretation of the Constitutional right to petition the government -- also known as bribes. But they never use that word.

It’s a crime. It’s an injustice. But don’t expect anyone to go to jail for it. Why? Because Congress is in cahoots with the bankers, the insurance giants, the business barons who have as much public concern, community goodwill and personal honesty as a pile of rocks.

Not only do these bloodsuckers, who were on the edge of disaster when the taxpayers saved their skins, show no gratitude or restraint in overpaying themselves for not doing the right thing in the first place but they underwrite every campaign to destroy any hope for the country to improve life for the average citizen.

They oppose health care and fund the Republican political machine which opposes any reform in Congress and they fund the Blue Dog Democrats who see no reason to support their own party’s high minded resolve to help millions of the country’s uninsured. They underwrite the cost of fighting any effort to thwart global warming. All they care about is making as much money as they can no matter how many innocent people go without adequate medical care or how dangerous the world will be without pollution controls.

They are the most shortsighted people that ever existed. They don’t care about the future. They only live for the profits of the moment. They pay off Congress and fatten the wallets of government leaders in order to protect their bloated incomes. My desire is they live long enough to see how much damage they have done to their children’s and grandchildren’s worlds.

The Republican Party, with its antipathy towards any change in the way health care, is standing boldly shoulder-to-shoulder with the insurance and pharmaceutical industries in opposition to anything offered in the realm of health care reform. They are joined by enough reactionary Democrats to stop meaningful progress.

When it comes to the area of stimulating jobs in our weakened economy all the Republicans can think of is their precious taxes. They keep singing that discredited song that tax cuts for business stimulates employment when we all know that the tax cuts given during the Bush Administration resulted in a near depression.

And the Democrats are not blameless. They cannot get together to write stiff new rules that would restrict banks and investment firms from hoodwinking the public in the future even after the financial chaos following the Bush Administration. It is difficult to believe there are realistic objections in the shadow of such a financial disaster. Even the watered-down bill passed by the House this week failed to gain a single Republican vote.

But neither party has serious objections to restricting entitlements to the poor and middle classes. It’s no harm if the lower income echelon of society cannot buy as much with food stamps as before, or afford a doctor’s regular care, or pay their mortgages.

It is all right for the lower income families to send their youths to fight and die in a questionable war as long as the investors in Haliburton (like Dick Cheney) and Blackwater make billions selling their inflated, non-bid services to the military.

The ugliness of the American political scene is heartless. We have a Congress hobbled into inaction by one party which can only say "no" to all proposals and by Senate rules that demolish the democratic concept of majority rule. We no longer have democracy in America, we have borderline anarchy fed by contentious politicians rejoicing in logjams and gridlock. The only time bipartisanship rears its head is when funding warfare.

And there is no relief for the electorate.

It is Christmas time and if you are looking for the traditional goodwill and peace of the season, you’d better look somewhere else. You won’t find it in the US Congress.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Depressed? Who me?

By Don Klein

A good friend of mind said he is worried about me. He thinks I am depressed. My wife disagrees. She thinks I am overwhelmed with stress. I don’t know who is correct.

I do know I am confounded, perplexed and bewildered. I feel some strange power has singled me out for a heavy dose of negativity over a very short period of time.

It all started a month ago when my dentist told me my teeth were in bad shape. Four of them had to be extracted. He yanked them out of the back of my mouth then informed me it would be some time before he could build partial bridges because he had to wait for the gums to heal. That immediately destroyed my eating routine. No steaks, no chops, no bagels – just soft food for a long time.

About that time my wife was diagnosed with an ailment that required surgeries in Baltimore by two specialists. We had to make arrangements for the trip and order referrals from our primary physician’s office. That’s the insurance imperative these days. The clerks promised to mail the sacred documents to the distant surgeons.

Meanwhile I got a call from my bowling team captain reporting that she had been hurt in a auto accident and wouldn’t be bowling that week and could I take over for her. I did. In the confusion of first finding a substitute bowler, then entering the names on the scorecard and the monitor screen, I noticed time was eluding me so I grabbed my ball for at least one practice shot. I landed flat on my face.

Why? In the rush to do everything in the briefest time allotted I forgot to put my bowling shoes on and threw the ball wearing my street shoes. Advice to bowlers: Don’t ever do that. No traction. Splat.

The next day we learn that the referrals that were supposed to be sent to Baltimore, were not. At that time it was too late to mail them and besides we didn’t trust the clerks and did not want to travel 135 miles only to be turned away because of no referrals. So I drove in exasperation to our Salisbury doctor’s office to pick up the referrals personally after first revisiting my dentist for a checkup on my gums.

On the way back somehow I drove my car off the road and smashed into my neighbor’s house. The car was totaled. Miraculously there was no injury to me or severe damage to the house. That initiated a whole series of gut-wrenching routines that follow all accidents. First, arranging for towing the damaged car, then renting a car and dealing with the insurance people and finally negotiating for a new car. All in three days time.

A day later my wife’s car stopped running. Again a towing – to the dealer this time. Diagnosed as an engine computer failure, it took several days to repair. At the same time my prize possession, the Bose radio and CD player, whose music always cured my tension, also stopped playing for no discernable reason.

Now we were ready for the Baltimore excursion. Great friends in rural Clarksville put us up for the three-day stay there. We had never been to their house -- or that area of Maryland – so we traveled on unfamiliar routes reading directions as we roamed darkened roads. It rained all three days to add to the strain of driving.

We had to be at the two different doctors on two succeeding days before dawn. There were no good night’s sleep as a result.

Getting to Baltimore was weird, inside the city the travel was familiar enough though stressful. Trying to find our way among the myriad of structures on the Johns Hopkins Hospital campus is like trying to escape the clutches of the Blob that ate California. Hopkins has wrapped its unwieldy embrace over a sizable chunk of east Baltimore and turned what once was one of the dumpiest neighborhoods of the city into a widespread, confusing technological health complex even an employee would have trouble negotiating.

When my wife’s treatment was over we were free to travel back to Ocean City. It was Thanksgiving Eve, the worst travel day of the year. I stopped for a snack on the approach to the Bay Bridge, my wife was not hungry, and found out that bridge traffic had been greatly retarded because of heavy fog.

A half-hour later, safely on the Eastern Shore side of the Chesapeake Bay, I had to stop and close my eyes for a nap while parked in a county lot off the main highway determined not to repeat losing control of my driving again.

When we got home it was still raining. No food for dinner. Went out for pizza and stained the back seat of my new car with its drippings. Then I learned our oldest granddaughter, an 18 year old who was in tears a few weeks ago when she left her boyfriend in Virginia because of his bad treatment of her, had recanted. They left together to return to Virginia after Thanksgiving despite parental and grand-parental advice to the contrary.

Then to top off everything else, our newspaper whose delivery had be discontinued while we were in Baltimore, was not delivered for five days after the reinstatement date. The responsible circulation people at the paper couldn’t figure out why.

The American Psychological Association reports that 75 percent of Americans are experiencing moderate to high levels of stress, demonstrated by symptoms of irritability and anger. Why should I be different?

Am I depressed? No. Am I stressed out? Maybe. I just want to climb into bed, pull the covers over my head and stay there until they start redelivering my newspaper. I joyfully will open the tardy news sheet and look at the front page – then I’ll really be depressed.