Saturday, December 31, 2005

Hope for a better 2006


The half-empty side of my personality is ending this most dreadful year on a downbeat note.

Relentlessly on message (who cares if that message is a lie?), the Bush Administration has bounced back in the polls, looks likely to win its battle to swing the Supreme Court further to the right, and responded to the uproar over domestic spying by aggressively investigating the press and its unnamed sources, a move that if successful will further dampen the already muted criticism of this administration's outrageous usurpation of power.

The half-empty side of my personality reminds me that this is the year to renew my passport, a document my German-born father always warned his sons to keep current.

And then I repeat to myself the words I told my younger daughter time and again as she grew up: "Look at the glass half-full, not half-empty." So let me end the year by trying to practice that advice.

If 2005 was filled with bad news, from the escalating bloodshed in Iraq to the devastation of New Orleans, it showed signs of being a year of reawakening. No less a pillar of traditional news than the New York Times, the newspaper liberals chastised for buying into administration claims that there were weapons of mass destruction behind every sand dune in Iraq, published an editorial a week ago headlined "Mr. Cheney's Imperial Presidency." The lead read: "George W. Bush has quipped several times during his political career that it would be so much easier to govern in a dictatorship. Apparently he never told his vice president that this was a joke."


Next week, a member of the Massachusetts congressional delegation is holding a town meeting in America's birthplace, Lexington. The topic: domestic spying. And he's sharing the stage with the state director of the ACLU. Wow 2.

Then there's the filibuster that forced the president to sign a short-term extension of the Patriot Act. It succeeded in large part because several conservative Republican senators broke ranks with their party to voice concern about the sweep of the act and its potential to intrude into the lives of law-abiding Americans. Wow 3.

The next month will tell us much. We'll discover whether Samuel Alito, whom I fear more for his rubber-stamp views in support of presidential power than for his potential opposition to Roe v. Wade, is the next justice of the Supreme Court. We'll find out whether Jack Abramoff cuts a deal with prosecutors and sings -- loud enough all signs indicate to take down a row of Republican congressmen with him. Most importantly, perhaps, we'll find out to what extent Congress is willing to put partisanship aside to demand that the President of the United States stay within the law.

I admit that I'm less than confident. But that's the half-empty side of me speaking. The half-full side counts the growing list of Republican senators willing to speak out on select issues such as torture and invasion of privacy. There's McCain, Hagel, Stowe, Chafee and Collins. More recently Specter, Craig and Sununu have also made some noise. Can more traditional conservative voices such as Warner or Domenici be far behind?

I confess: I don't trust Republicans. In politics, you are, in a sense, what you earn -- or just take -- in the tens of thousands from lobbyists. But then, I don't trust Democrats for the same reason. Still, even elected representatives must occasionally have a conscience. They, too, must have studied about the Founding Fathers, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights -- all that stuff we learned every three years from fifth grade social studies on.

Perhaps 2006 can go down as the year in which responsible leaders of both parties found common ground to roll back or at least stop the unbridled expansion of presidential power. Perhaps the Senate Democrats will build on the newfound resolve that allowed them to sustain the Patriot Act filibuster so that they will demand legislation that explicitly forbids the internal spying and the suspension of the due processes of law that have become trademarks of this administration. And if not, perhaps someone in the Democratic Party will have the guts to call openly and forcefully for President George W. Bush's impeachment.

This is supposed to be a time of year for predictions. But the world of politics has me baffled. Will 2006 leave the glass of democracy half-empty, or worse, drink it further dry? Or will it begin to replenish that glass, recognizing that much of its content evaporated over the last five years while we as a country fixated, often in fear, on a president wrapped tightly in the flag that's supposed to represent the values we're ostensibly fighting for?

In small ways, each of us will help answer these questions in 2006. I for one, plan to start my new year by attending that Lexington town meeting on domestic spying. And when I stand to ask a question, I'll spell my name out loud and clear -- in case any spies from the administration are there taking notes.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

In the house of the setting sun

The piece below appeared on on Dec. 12, 2005

It has been three months since Katrina struck and (New Orleans) is a complete shambles.

-- The New York Times (12/11/05)

I wonder how the history books will cast the death of a great American city.

They'll note, of course, that while President George W. Bush and his vice-president, Dick Cheney flew around the country, insisting to Americans that the war in distant Iraq was being won, and while the opposition party, The Democrats, fought among themselves about how they could best call on the president to extricate the U.S. from that tough war without looking weak, no one seemed to much notice that an historic American community, a place of jazz and joie de vivre, home to some of the country's best cooking and delightful eccentricities, was dying of neglect.

They'll conclude, no doubt, that this rich and human city, where the real block parties had nothing to do with the drunks on Bourbon Street, where unlike most of the country people really did know their neighbors, was in the end abandoned by an America that just didn't care enough to tune in.

Abandoned by a ruling Republican Party consumed by scoring ideological points, giving more tax cuts to the rich, winning a war it couldn't win, and covering up its own growing corruption.

Abandoned by a Democratic Party grasping desperately for leadership, and coming up short.

Abandoned by a news media bleeding from too many corporate cuts and grasping for news, however trivial, that sold well the next day instead of news that might have built a better country tomorrow.

In the end, however, historians will conclude correctly that it is we who killed New Orleans. We let it be abandoned by politicians and ignored by the press. You and I, preoccupied by how much we could spend on Christmas gifts or whether Matt Damon's betrothed was really pregnant.

You and I, mesmerized or just numbed by the finger pointing and shouting over Iraq, an easier story to grasp, no doubt, because people die there every day. You and I, conned by the silence into believing, or at least deceiving ourselves into believing, that in the aftermath of Katrina, the aftermath of a week of utter incompetence, a week in which we watched Americans dying on national television while the government burped, that same government was now doing something of substance to rebuild the Big Easy.

By all signs, it's not. The New York Times recently told us large swaths of New Orleans remain without electricity. It sounded sort of like Baghdad. Representatives of New Orleans' colleges toured Boston last week, pleading with the displaced students of Tulane and Loyola and Xavier, to come back. Most, they insist, are planning to re-enroll. But what about next year? Who wants to study, and live, and work in a city left shattered and largely to its own devices.

Some people, of course, might argue that New Orleans doesn't deserve to be rebuilt. It's largely below sea level, they say, a city awaiting its next disaster. But then, so is the Netherlands, and that's a country. It is possible to invest in a solution. But it takes will -- and billions of dollars -- to do so.

Some might argue that it isn't the rest of America's problem. That big government can't solve all problems. That the United States was built on entrepreneurship and a pioneering spirit and that the people of New Orleans should apply their quotient of both. But that's poppycock. The people who talk about getting government off of our backs are the very same people who have frittered tens of billions of dollars of government money in Iraq and push to spend more and more there.

I am astonished that neither of our political parties has yet come up with even a coherent framework for rebuilding New Orleans and its levees. With the life support system turned off, they're just waiting for it to die.

I'm particularly astonished that The Democrats have said next to nothing. It is, after all, the party that brought us the New Deal, Head Start and other programs which, at crucial turning points of American history, extended a hand.

I'm still waiting for Democrats to propose a new New Deal, programs that create jobs for, and extend tax credits and incentives to, those who help rebuild New Orleans. I'm waiting for a Democratic economist to construct and trumpet a clear and simple graphic that shows we could rebuild New Orleans many times over for what we've invested in the corruption, torture and mayhem we're passing off as democracy in Iraq.

I'm waiting for a Democrat to lead, to demand construction of a levee system that will stand when the next hurricane comes, to point out that the latest $90 billion tax cut passed by Congress is three times the estimated cost of reconstructing New Orleans levees to withstand even a truly catastrophic storm. Without new levees, no one will return.

Why have the Democrats been silent? And if they're capable of nothing but a whimper from Capitol Hill, why should we, an increasingly disgusted and disenfranchised public, support either party? Is anyone capable of earning our votes? But I digress. The Republicans arrogance is ultimately our arrogance as a nation. And the Democrats silence is ultimately our shame.

Writes The Times: "If the nation has decided it is too expensive to give the people of New Orleans a chance at renewal, we have to tell them so. We must tell them we spent our rainy-day fund on a costly stalemate in Iraq, that we gave it away in tax cuts for wealthy families and shareholders. We must tell them America is too broke and too weak to rebuild one of its great cities. ..... Whether we admit it or not, this is our choice to make. We decide whether New Orleans lives or dies."

The Times is right. But are we listening?