Sunday, February 21, 2010

Is failure our watchword?

By Don Klein

When is a war crime not a war crime? When government lawyers exonerate other government lawyers for violating established international law.

Everyone knows that torture is against everything this country stands for. Except, perhaps, the Justice Department lawyers in judgment of the Bush lawyers who inspired the travesty of creating new language to give US agents the green light during the years of authorized water boarding.

We have backed off from the Nuremberg trials which established the rule that "I was ordered to do so" is no excuse for committing war crimes. Dozens of Nazis were charged and at least 12 were sentenced to death for war crimes. The United States led the world in condemning acts of official brutality and installed the rule of decent treatment of all captives, military and civilian, and banning torture.

The Bush Administration, pumped by the warped ideals of Vice President Dick Cheney, reneged on this honorable commitment. Now the Obama Administration has let off the hook the men who justified Bush torture policy. Current Justice Department lawyers probing former Justice Department lawyers ended up slapping the culprits on the wrist for legalizing harsh treatment of captives held by this country.

It’s enough to make one think there is no hope that the US government can ever do anything right anymore. Not only are they not to be tried as war criminals, the lawyers who authored the pernicious rule that led to water boarding, Jay S. Bybee and John C. Yoo, are now "honorable" members of society. Bybee is a federal judge and Yoo a university professor.

According to the decision by the Justice Department the two used flawed legal reasoning but were not guilty of official misconduct. Are these the kind of men we want on the federal bench and teaching in an American law school? They should be serving a term in the penitentiary, or at least suffer disbarment.

This is just one more case of President Obama’s impotence. He is so afraid of offending Republicans he is distorting his entire approach to the right things to do. He bends over backwards to get Republican bipartisanship in the Senate and gets slapped in the face time and again. He has brought turning the other cheek to new level of disillusionment.

His party has already taken war crimes trials off the table for Bush and Cheney, now the government won’t even find anything seriously wrong with the lawyers that were used to give torture the air of legality. It makes it extremely difficult for one-time Obama supporters to maintain their enthusiasm for the man. He just does not seem to have what is needed to do all things he said he would do during the campaign.

Where do disenchanted Obama backers go? There is nothing for them in the two party system. The GOP is bold and drives the country into the arms of the profiteers and Neanderthals, and the Democrats make wonderful promises to reform this, that and everything else and despite having a clear majority in both houses of Congress are scared off from doing anything once resistance raises its ugly head.

Unlike fairytales, our white knights are colossal cowards. Cheney openly brags of his role in propelling torture into the American national image and he trots freely on our streets and on our television screens. Bush rests in comfortable Texas banishment trying on his flight suit whenever he gets bored with reading the comics and ignores the national turmoil he helped create.

Meanwhile, the people are close to rebellion. The Tea Party adherents, embracing their political ignorance – and Sarah Palin, want to secede from the Union. On the other side, the Liberals are disenchanted and won’t come out to vote in important elections which allowed the usually Democratic Senate seat in Massachusetts last month to go Republican for the first time in a half century.

I won’t say this frustration is all Obama fault, but much of it is. He showed little gumption to fight for his programs during his first year in office. People view him as a pussycat being frightened into the corner at the mere mention of a filibuster. He is not the tiger they thought they elected in November 2008.

There is a serious possibility that now, after more than a year of going nowhere on health reform, bank regulations and environmental issues that the Democrats will surely take a beating when the midterm elections come in November. No one wants to be a Democrat running for office this year – with good reason. They are one gigantic national flop.

Now they add insult to their political impotence by allowing war criminals to get away with their malevolent behavior. The inability of the government to perform on any level has paralyzed the nation and America will soon be a wonderful dream that, we in this generation, failed to nurture and pass on in decent shape to our progeny.

Just think of it. During the last decade we had a tragic war, a disastrous economy which has bankrupted the country and a stymied government resulting in massive unemployment plus thousands of dead and horribly injured American servicemen and the loss of global prestige and no government policy maker will be held accountable for it.

If the Republicans take control of the Senate and maybe even the House of Representatives this fall that will mean the end of all progress – as if that would be any worse than it already is.

After Bush many swore never vote for a national Republican again. Now the problem is compounded. They must ask, after Obama, "what do I do?"

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Waiting for the next blizzard

By Don Klein

Being stuck at home because of a snow storm is great for kids. There is sledding and snowball fights and for those with skill, ice skating. There is also a healthy resurgence of family comity in at-home activities. Most of all it means no school for them. I never realized until recently that being snowbound is good for grandparents as well.

In my younger days I always liked the concept of snow. It was God’s way of purifying the land with a pristine coat of cool, soothing, white fluff, much as intensive rain sweeps away all the muck of everyday life. Snow just covers it. But just below the line of consciousness in those days I secretly dreaded snow when it pounced onto my life in substantial quantities.

To me it meant shoveling what seems to be tons of the white stuff from the driveway and front walk. It meant power failures and the breakdown in normal public services and cancellations of many civic activities plus horrendous trips to and from my job. Snow storms are eclectic, a balance of fun, frenzy and frustration.

Not anymore. In retirement without little ones under foot, being snowbound is a cherished period of relief. I noticed that for the first time last weekend.
In the days when we had young children at home my wife, Joyce, would bake loads of chocolate chip cookies and make what always appeared to be gallons of hot cocoa. Once the walk was shoveled many of the neighborhood kids would come tapping on the front door for handouts. They knew where the freshly baked cookies were concentrated.

To this day, our daughters now mothers themselves, bake chocolate chip cookies when they are shut-in by winter storms. The acorn never falls far from the oak.

With this most recent storm, her culinary juices aroused by the sight of snow pelting at the sides of the house, Joyce asked me "Would you like me to bake brownies?" My lack of responsive enthusiasm was driven by the fact that before the storm I had wisely purchased a fudge cake and a box of chocolate covered doughnuts (don’t mention it to my doctor) for nutritional fortification during the upcoming weather-driven confinement.

Not being deterred by my negative reaction, she said the magical words, "How about I make a pot full of knadels." Ah, knadels. An image from my past. The Passover delicacy my wife learned to make from my mother. Mom made great knadels but Joyce has outdone her, ameliorating her cooking with each passing year.

There are few foods I can think of that I can resist – French onion soup, beef Wellington, grilled Alaskan salmon, Rainbow trout, chicken l’orange, beef tartare – but none more than knadels. It makes me salivate.

For those who are unfamiliar with knadels accept ths definition. It is a fluffy dumpling made of matzoh meal and other magical ingredients folded into the size of a meatball, cooked for 20 minutes in unsalted boiling water which is disposed of before the little darlings are served with steaming homemade chicken soup.

The soup, as we all know, is a cure all for ailments. Homemade chicken soup is miraculous. Legend has it that it makes stutterers speak like Laurence Olivier, transforms klutzes into Fred Astaires, and would do wonders in making chatty Sarah Palin as erudite as Adlai Stevenson if ever she deigned to taste it.

Despite all the positives that exist in chicken soup, it is the knadels, or matzoh balls as some people call it, that deserve all the praise. Just imagine. A cold night, the wind whistling outside, the snow pelting at your front door, and you are presented with a bowl full of steaming homemade chicken soup with a half dozen knadels floating in it. You brain turns celestial. You hear bells.

But that is not the only reason for me to glory in being snowbound. All during the day as Mother Nature unleashed her fury on us, I had the pleasure of finishing a great book, "My Paper Chase" by Harold Evans, all about newspaper work in Britain and the US. Then I picked up once again a novel I had interrupted to read the Evans book, called, "The Russian Concubine" by Kate Furnivall.

This is a beautifully written piece of fiction about western expatriates in China prior to World War II. Then there were the moments spent with eyes closed listening to recordings on my CD player of Mozart, Strauss, Copland and Beethoven. What else does man need? Thankfully there was no place to go, nothing to do since all meetings and scheduled dinners were cancelled.

Fortunately a bunch of young guys with a sister, showed up and shoveled out our driveway so if we had to go somewhere we could, but didn’t because there was no place to park the car once we got there. That meant another day of involuntary detention.

It was great to stay home and do nothing, except read great new books, listen to fabulous old music and to close out the day with a dinner which included the eternal knadels and homemade chicken soup. Ah, Nirvana right here on earth.

I’ll try to slip in days like this again when the weather is less contrary, but I know it won’t work. The pull of life’s routines are irrevocable. I’ll just wait for the next blizzard and hope for the best.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Time to call their bluff

by Don Klein

Years ago when I was new to reporting a sagacious elder told me that politics is the art of compromise. Over the years I remembered that rule and watched how it worked on every level of government. That is the true meaning of bipartisanship.

You give a little. I give a little. And before long we have an agreement and legislation is enacted.

Last week when President Obama went before the Republican meeting in Baltimore in a face-to-face showdown on public policy it gave the appearance of the start of bipartisanship in action, but really it was just an extension of what has been going on for the entire first year of his presidency.

It appeared that Obama was making a serious attempt to bridge some of the issues that separate the executive and Republicans. I am sorry to conclude that I did not see the same serious act of honest conciliation on the part of the Republicans who spoke out.

The most glaring different between the Democratic president and his GOP opponents was contrition. He had it, they didn’t. He acknowledged that he did not do everything he said he would do during the 2008 campaign and promised to do better in the future. They, on the other hand, stood fast and never admitted standing in the way of legislative progress during last year.

Obama shocked them when he said he had read their counter proposals on several issues and incorporated the best ideas into bills at issue and rejected others for reasons of good government. While the Republicans hardly ever budged from their unwillingness to cooperate with the administration on any issue.

In the end, Obama walked away from the meeting a much more admirable figure than any of his sniveling opponents who only seemed to be interested in stymying any program which put a new face on solutions to problems. The GOP clearly wants to follow the same old, dysfunctional policies of the Bush administration which brought on the terrible state of the nation today.

Examples: They want to solve the severe national financial shortfall by more tax cuts when what the government needs is more income, not less. They still want to implore the old, harmful plans to cut entitlements and privatize social security instead of seeking new solutions. They don’t want to be labeled the "party of no" by Democrats while never voting in favor of anything the Obama party proposes.

The Republicans are wracked by their well-deserved negative image and want the president to make them look good again. They almost unanimously praised the idea of the meeting and thanked Obama for taking up their invitation, but most of them behind the scenes thought they should not repeat the meeting.

They realize they took a beating on view for all to see on television.

Frankly, I hope I am wrong but my gut feeling tells me there will be no change in relationship in Washington the coming year. The GOP sees their current obstructive policies paying off by causing a new round of gridlock, which the public despises and takes out on incumbents. So far the victims have all been Democrats. The New Jersey and Virginia governorships went their way and more recently the half-century-old Democratic seat in the Senate from Massachusetts went Republican.

They feel obstructionism works to their favor and although Obama seems destined to make points whenever he faced them in open debate, they seem to win at the voting booth. And since this is an election year for all the seats of the House of Representatives and one-third the Senate, why should they start cooperating for the good of the rest of us now?

I don’t see any improvement in relations on the horizon between the two sides in Washington. More gridlock. More ridiculous, meaningless opposition up and down the line. And more problems for the grass roots where unemployment demands a unified government approach to problems.

The Obama visit to the Republican retreat last week was good public relations for Obama, not the Republicans. They will not repeat it soon, or ever, because it did not serve their purpose. I feel they invited the president in the first place because they expected him to decline the invitation and thereby give the Republicans a political victory without an actual face-off. It didn’t work

Being obstructive only goes so far. It pleases the distant right wing because these lovers of Bush extremism see Obama as an abomination for many incoherent reasons. But the majority of Americans think highly of the president and not so well of the Republicans, according to all polls taken recently. If the Republicans continue to cater to the extremists by blocking legislative action in the Senate they will be surprised in November.

If the Democrats were smart, now that they have dithered away their 60 vote majority -- and I wonder about the Senate leadership -- they should push legislation to one filibuster after another and allow the public to measure which is truly the Party of No. I think the Republicans are bluffing and cannot sustain many filibusters without causing damage to themselves.

Let them kill economic recovery. Let them stop health reform. Let them fight excessive federal spending which they themselves perfected during the Bush years. Let them bring government down to inaction. Then let them go to the polls in November and ask the public to put them into power. It would be ironic and the best thing to happen for the Democrats.

But it takes bold-faced courage, and I don’t know if the Democrats have any.