Monday, January 17, 2011

The forgotten giant

By Don Klein

Here we are again celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday and again I have that deep down feeling that there is somehow an injustice being imposed on history and all of us. I get this feeling every January when everyone is being reminded of King and no one mentions the giant of the last century, FDR.

I have no reason to suggest that Reverend King does not deserve national recognition or that his deeds were not worthy of being commemorated by observing his birthday as a national holiday.

But I do feel that giving tribute to the civil rights leader while ignoring the greatest American president of our time is not fair and very close to an abomination, especially since both men were born in January and both were giants in their time.

Thinking about Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the thirty-second president of the United States, the man who served as head of the nation longer than any other in the past or ever will in the future, I get nostalgic. He was elected to a record four terms and held the reins of government for 4,422 days, longer by far than any other man.

He took office in 1933 and died four months into his fourth term in 1945, just as World War II was coming to an end. His funeral was attended by all the world leaders of the time, and if you were alive at the time, as I was, you will never forget it.

I give him no credit for length of service. I never think of him as the political iron man equivalent of Cal Ripken. I remember him for his leadership, the immensity of his interests and the variety of his work. He was as Beethoven was to music; Einstein to mathematics; and Shakespeare to literature.

He took us beyond the ordinary. He had uncommon vision. He established new norms. He broke boundaries.

He was creative in national policies, he charmed his political enemies, roused world leaders to great levels while being inspirational to the masses of struggling Americans in bad times and the savior of millions of subjugated Europeans during the worst period in world history.

FDR, as he was readily known by headline writers and the man and woman on the street, was the man who faced the worst economic travail in US history when he took office in 1933. He vowed to put the nation back on its feet with a range of programs which protected the ordinary citizen and brought reasonable controls to a reluctant American business community.

He was the first president I was aware of as a child and when he spoke to the country on his patented radio “fireside chats” (there was no television in those days) millions sat silent and listened intently. You could say he was the first superstar the country ever knew.

In the 1930s his voice, though cultured and sounding a bit uppity, was the soothing salve of confidence for a frightened nation, a father figure, during the Great Depression assuring everyone that all will soon be well. And once war broke out in the 1940s that same confident voice convinced Americans we would prevail against our enemies when at first that was no such certainty.

His days were the best of all times during the worst of all times.

He not only talked the good talk, as they say these days, but he walked the good walk. His programs – social security, Wall Street reform, and a myriad of alphabet agencies – brought the country back onto its feet. During the war his decisive leadership guaranteed an Allied victory against evil in Europe and Asia.

He holds a hallowed place in my mind. No president since faced as many dreadful challenges as FDR. I consider him among the five greatest presidents ever – George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt are the other four. We will not see his likes again.

It is for that reason that I am uncomfortable with the fact that the nation celebrates King’s birthday and not FDR’s. No question that King was a great man and served this nation well. But his accomplishments were almost entirely in one important field. He helped destroy the ugly barriers to black equality in the country. That is good.

When compared to the worldwide accomplishments of FDR however, he stands some distance behind in achievements. Somehow FDR’s greatness was lost in the post WWII years as American politics was tangled with awkward partisanship, a series of petty wars and the civil rights movement.

MLK has roads and schools in practically every major city named for him. That is fine. But most of the edifices named Roosevelt were dedicated to the memory of Theodore, not Franklin, except for the East Side Highway in New York City and state parks in Georgia and New York.

Shouldn’t we honor the greatest president in the last century with something more – at least make his birthday, January 30, a national holiday?

I am reminded of the story often told about the man standing on the roadside as the FDR funeral cortege passed. The man was weeping profusely as though he had lost a member if his family. A passerby noticed the crying man and asked, “Did you know the president?” The tear-drenched man said, “No, but he knew me.”

There are not many presidents who could have elicited such a response.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

House of charades

By Don Klein

Congress is in session and it is time again for that famous and well-worn Washington game called, "Congressional charade." How better to spend your limited time as a member of Congress than seeming to be doing something when actually you are not.

The burlesque occupying the members of the House of Representatives through its second week of the new session is called repeal of the Health Act passed last year when Congress was controlled by Democrats.

It is a mockery because everyone knows, especially the Republican leaders of the House, that the bill will never be enacted even if it passes with flying colors in the Republican dominated lower chamber of the national legislature.

"It’s symbolic," John Boehner, the new speaker of the House admitted, "we promised our constituents." Known for saying his party is fulfilling the desires of the American people he ignored the fact that the majority of voters in the latest poll by CNN have an exact opposite view of the Health Care Act.

Over 60 percent said they like it and in fact many wish it went further than it does.

But that is not the only fact the Republicans en masse dismiss when they talk about the law. The Congressional Budget Office, the non-partisan statistical arm of Congress, claimed that the Health Act will save taxpayers $230 billion over the next decade against the alternative of doing nothing and would cover an additional 32 million Americans.

Republican after Republican who were asked about this deficit increase that would result from the repeal deny this simple fact. "It’s got to cost more," Rep. Mike Ross, (R-Arkansas) said, when you add millions more to the insurance rolls. The GOP has been in the act of denying facts ever since George W. Bush became president.

Recall how after the Army searched for months over hill and dale in Iraq for weapons of mass destruction and found none, then President Bush insisted there WMD’s still were threatening the nation. Remember Vice President Cheney saying deficits were good, despite all the evidence to the contrary.

Speaker Boehner in his remarks to House members on the first day of the 112th Congress said there would be open sessions on all bills, then exempted the health repeal effort from debate and amendments. He also said that all new legislation offered must be accompanied by an explanation of what funds will be cut or trimmed to avoid adding to the deficit.

That too was violated by the leadership in exempting from the rule the health proposal and a handful of other favorite GOP pieces of legislation slated for action by the party. Of course who can forget the massive addition to the deficit buried in the bosom of a massive tax cut for the wealthy squeezed from Obama by the Republicans during the lame duck session last year.

To them it is a game: sounds like jobs through tax cuts for millionaires . Looks like acting for the people. Sounds like open House rules. Charade. Charade. Charade. It is all a game, but a dangerous one. Might as well play Russian roulette.

The reason the health repeal won’t work is because the Senate is still controlled by the Democrats and is unlikely even to take up the repeal. If they do it should be defeated, ending the effort there. If by chance it should pass the Senate, Obama will veto it and Congress will not be able to override the president’s rejection.

"Don’t you think it’s a waste of time?" a reporter asked Boehner.

"No, I do not," he said. "I believe it’s our responsibility to do what we said we were going to do. And I think it’s pretty clear to the American people that the best health care system in the world is going to go down the drain if we don’t act."

Even though health repeal will be dead on arrival, the GOP leaders of the House insist on pushing it through against the will of the people, and against their own commitment to lower the deficit, and against all reasonable hope of final enactment. The question we should ask is why they do things just to be symbolic during a period of severe unemployment and economic stress in the nation?

Why isn’t the House trying to do something about stimulating employment? They criticized the Democrats when they were in power for not doing enough to blunt joblessness.

In their way of thinking, all that matters if what is good for the insurance companies which after repeal would be able to reject covering the needy. Next target will be social security and medicare?

The deplorable fact is that nothing significant will happen during the next two years because the noxious bills the House may pass will never be approved by the Senate. And the Senate will never get anything done until they revise the filibuster rule, which is not a certainty at all.

So welcome to the 112th Congress which will be noted for spinning wheels, attending masquerade parties on the House and Senate floors, and playing endless charades. Even with the reduction by members in cutting House office costs by five percent they will still be the best Congress money can buy. But the money will come from corporations and the waste paid for by taxpayers.