Thursday, December 31, 2009

BOOK REVIEW: Presidential Medical Secrets: The Most Disturbing of All?

While gossip mavens love to write about or read about the sexual and other private peccadillos of presidents of the United States, there is another aspect of presidential private lives that is much more pertinent in consideration of executive performance in our political history. That is the question of the medical (including the psychological) condition of the chief executive/commander-in-chief of the national armed forces, and the historical occurrence of secrecy and cover-up when a president is seriously or grievously ill.

Most of the time, the secrets come to light only after the term, or after the death, of a president.

The first presidential medical crisis was not a secret, nor a cover-up, but a case of colossal misjudgment. On inauguration day, March 4, 1841, newly-elected President William Henry Harrison (nicknamed “Tippecanoe” after the famous battle he had won as a general) decided to deliver his very long inaugural address on a bitterly cold Washington, DC day without an overcoat. He subsequently caught pneumonia, and a month later, died. (One might say it was the antithesis of a cover-up.) In any event, the Harrison campaign slogan “Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too!” was unexpectedly fulfilled when John Tyler became the first vice president in U.S. history to succeed prematurely, albeit constitutionally, to the presidency.

Numerous secret medical crises have confronted U.S. presidents since, including a possible undiagnosed case of Marfan’s Disease for Abraham Lincoln, the severe alcoholism of Andrew Johnson, the cover-up of Grover Cleveland’s secret surgery for cancer of the jaw on a naval battleship, Woodrow Wilson’s incapacitating stroke which made his wife the de facto president for almost two years, the circumstances in the sudden and premature death of Warren Harding, cover-ups of medical conditions and surgeries of Dwight Eisenhower and Lyndon Johnson, and the complete suppression of the facts by John F. Kennedy when he took office with then-fatal Addison’s Disease that had also made him, in effect, a drug addict.

But the latest revelation of presidential medical cover-ups may be the most serious of all of in historical risks and consequences for the nation.

“FDR Deadly Secret” by Steven Lomazow, M.D. and Eric Fettman (Public Affairs, 2010) is an extraordinary medical detective story that will force some re-evaluation of the nation’s longest-serving president. Roosevelt was sworn in for this fourth term on January 20, 1945. Less than two months later, the generally beloved “war president” (age only 63) died of a cerebral hemorrhage in his retreat at Warm Springs, Georgia, and Vice President Harry Truman took his place. Roosevelt’s physicians, including his primary caregiver, Rear Admiral Ross McIntyre, cited hypertension as the cause of death. Although Roosevelt’s physical condition had dramatically deteriorated since 1943, McIntyre and Roosevelt himself had repeatedly reassured the public that his health was good.

In fact, as authors Lomazow and Fettman conclusively demonstrate in their book, the president was grievously ill from 1940 on, and almost certainly knew most of the extent of his condition, as did the physicians taking care of him. Roosevelt’s immediate cause of death was the cerebral hemorrhage, and he did have severe (“uncontrolled” his physician admitted in 1970) hypertension, but Roosevelt’s underlying conditions of metastatic skin cancer (melanoma) and congestive heart failure were kept from public view for at least five years.

(Technically, although Lomazow is a distinguished neurologist and Fettman a very credible historical journalist, their contentions are theoretical, and they say so, because all pertinent medical records were destroyed or suppressed. Nevertheless, the first-hand testimony of so many involved, and the brilliant medical detective work of the authors makes their scenario accurate, in my opinion, beyond a reasonable doubt.)

In fact, on the day before (in 1944) when he informed the Democratic National Committee that he would run for the unprecedented fourth term, the book’s authors point out that Roosevelt had been told unambiguously and forcefully by his doctors that he could not survive a new term. Records of this do exist.

The precedent for the cover-up of his desperate medical condition, of course, had been set at the outset of his presidency when Roosevelt, his entourage, and the entire national media participated in the total cover-up of his paralysis following a bout with poliomyelitis in 1923. Hard as it may seem to believe today, most of the nation was unaware that the president of the United States was crippled. My father, a general practitioner and lifelong admirer of Roosevelt, first noticed this in October, 1932 when (New York) Governor Roosevelt passed through his home city of Erie, Pennsylvania on a campaign stop. Having succeeded in the most amazing (and for the media, willing) medical cover up in presidential history to that point, Roosevelt no doubt felt that he could succeed in a much more serious cover-up a decade later.

The authors of “FDR’s Deadly Secret” are telling a medical story, and as admirers of Roosevelt the politician, but they cannot avoid the conclusion that the president’s fourth term bid was a fraud from its outset, and a terrible risk for a nation still at war. They also point out that, contrary to popular opinion, Roosevelt wanted to keep Vice President Henry Wallace (a far leftist and a mystic) on the ticket in 1944. Roosevelt only agreed to name Truman after he was informed that the Democratic convention would likely refuse to renominate Wallace, or at the least, it would split the Democratic Party. His choice of Truman, the evidence suggests, was not because Roosevelt foresaw Truman as the excellent president he became, but because Truman would be the most acceptable to the convention and likely to hold the party together.

The book suggests that Roosevelt was informed that he had a malignant melanoma inlate circa 1940. A large mole on his forehead had appeared in the 1920’a, but had
undergone acute changes circa 1939. Photographs in the book show the changing mole and its disappearance (by surgery) over the next two years. Although there was no autopsy of the president in 1945, and no records of a melanoma diagnosis survive, the book plausibly shows that this deadly skin cancer had probably spread to the president’s brain and stomach prior to the 1944 election.

Furthermore, the authors conclusively prove that Roosevelt had been diagnosed with never-publicly disclosed congestive heart disease in this same period, and that he had a series of undisclosed heart “events”, also prior to 1944. This book also reveals that the president spent much of his last year and a half in office sleeping up to 12-18 hours a day, and only occasionally fully engaged in his duties. His physicians, staff, colleagues and family all participated in a massive concealment of Roosevelt’s condition although only the president himself and three or four physicians caring for him knew the whole extent of his illnesses.

As is well-known, Roosevelt only met with Truman privately once after January 20, 1945, and that the vice president was mostly in the dark about many issues facing the nation at war after his nomination, including most notoriously, the existence of the top-secret Manhattan Project developing the first atomic bomb. A few months after taking office and learning about the secret bomb project, Truman had to make the momentous decision of whether to drop two atomic bombs on Japan.

In recent years, a number of biographies of Roosevelt and other histories of his era, most notably Doris Kearns Goodwin’s excellent “No Ordinary Time” (1994), have increasingly mentioned in passing Roosevelt’s medical “secrets” and a few of them have cited reports of a possible melanoma, noting the disappearance of the mole over FDR’s left eyebrow. Some of these books have also analyzed the impact of the heart disease on Roosevelt’s executive performance, particularly at Yalta. Lomazow and Fettman’s book, however, is the first to concentrate on the medical facts, and to trace the evidence to a “beyond a reasonable doubt” conclusion of the skin cancer metastasis as both the principle cause of FDR’s dramatic physical decline and death. That new material, plus the exhaustive demonstration of a
massive cover up that has continued to the present day, is what makes this book so valuable.

By today’s standards, all of this cover-up is unthinkable, and with the frequent appearances of a president live and on camera, close to impossible. In 1945, my father who, as I previously noted, had met Roosevelt briefly in 1932, had become commandant of the base army hospital (Arlington Hall) at General Marshall’s headquarters in Virginia. Although he treated Marshall and his wife on occasion, my father did not treat the president, nor did he see him up close in person. But he did see him in newsreels, and he remarked then to my mother and later to me that he knew Roosevelt was very ill. And so did intuitively virtually all who met with him from 1943-44 on, especially those who had known Roosevelt before the war. Nevertheless, Roosevelt’s own insistence, and that of his personal physicians, convinced most to accept that his ghastly appearance was simply the result of fatigue and the stresses of the war and his duties as president.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a major president in American history. He developed an unprecedented bond with a majority of voters while in office as a result of his efforts during the Depression of the 1930’s. He skillfully guided the nation into its role as the defender of democracy and Western civilization before and after December 7, 1941. A case can be made that he was the indispensable man to be president for a third term in 1941 when the rest of the world was at war. In late, 1944, however, with the war clearly coming to an end, he was no longer indispensable, and his inability function daily as president put the nation and our war effort at huge risk. His performance at the Yalta Conference in 1944 has been virtually universally criticized. The failure of this Conference, many contend, prolonged the ensuing Cold War (which ended finally in 1991). The current constitutional limit of two terms was instituted following FDR’s terms.

As the case of President Franklin Roosevelt and this book show, anyone in the most powerful executive position in the free world too long is likely to lose his or her good judgment.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Teaching the Free World (and the Totalitarian One) a Lesson; Gracias, Honduras

Brave little Honduras has become the modern David, teaching the Goliath nations of our time an inspiring message about the power of freedom, and the endurance of democratic capitalism when faced with formidable obstacles. The recent free elections in the Central American nation have ended a prolonged crisis when its elected president decided to defy the Honduran constitution and stay in power beyond the time legitimately allowed.

When he did this, he not only violated a specific constitutional law, he automatically defaulted on his claim to office. To their credit, the Honduran congress and supreme court acted promptly to remove him, per the constitutional mandate, and replace him with an interim government headed by someone from his own party.

They did make one mistake, however. Instead of jailing the deposed president and trying him for his crime, the interim government acted wisely and humanely by sending him out of the country. They did this to avoid unnecessary bloodshed, and to ease the transition to a new government following an immediately-scheduled free election.

Apparently, acting wisely and humanely is not a good course in today’s world. Sr. Zelaya, the deposed president, is a neo-Marxist, anti-democratic politician who sought to establish a totalitarian regime in Honduras, imitating the regimes of his friends and allies in Cuba, Venzeuela, Nicaragua and Bolivia. He took advantage of the generosity of the Honduran interim government to try to bully his way back to power, using misinformation and other propaganda to assist him. There was no surprise when his totalitarian friends backed him, alleging wrongly that a military coup had removed him, but there was a surprise when U.S. President Obama joined this unholy cabal to call for his reinstatement. The financial influence of the U.S. over Honduras is immense, and many observers in the U.S. and world media expected the interim government (and the majority of the Honduran people who backed it) to cave in.

But brave little Honduras did not cave in. The interim government acted impeccably and kept their promise to hold the immediate election. Sr. Zelaya called on his supporters to boycott the election, but the voter turnout was apparently greater than the previous election in which Zelaya had won! The candidate from Zelaya’s party lost, but he acted graciously and patriotically in embracing the victor, a conservative farmer/businessman who won with more than 50% of the large turnout. The various international organizations and leaders which had supported Zelaya were faced by an undisputedly fair and free election, and many of them have now rallied to the president-elect.

The usual totalitarian suspects, of course, still make laughable claims for Sr. Zelaya. President Lula of Brazil, an emerging and successful new economic power in South America, unfortunately has continued his support of Zelaya, disappointing many of his own Brazilian supporters, as well as his admirers in the rest of the world. As long as he continues to do so, and to shelter Sr. Zelaya in its embassy in Tegucigalpa, Brazil is wasting a superb opportunity to show that its recent economic success (as a capitalist democracy) merits leadership in the political life of the Western Hemisphere.

The free world owes the congress, supreme court and interim government of Honduras a very large debt for its courageous leadership, and the Honduran people for their indomitable resistance to threatening tyranny.

Meanwhile, President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton have wisely accepted the reality of Honduran politics, and finally broken with their totalitarian co-conspirators. They have endorsed the election results, and say they will resume normal relations with Honduras.

The U.S. radical left, of course, is disappointed. But even the Old Media, which had apologized and rationalized the original U.S. policy, is rapidly reversing itself. Perhaps most notable of this phenomenon is the current and embarrassing attempt by that lame duck of American journalism, The Washington Post, to fill its op ed columns and editorials with absurd “Animal Farm” revisionism that claims the Obama policy was right all along. Since I am a long-time admirer of the outstanding Post media critic Howard Kurtz, I hope he is allowed to write about this latest lapse of journalistic integrity and credibility at his newspaper.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

It’s Not too Early to Think About the….. 2012 Vice President?

There are many aspects of the U.S. presidential campaigns which could be importantly improved. In the last cycle of 2008, I joined with former Speaker Newt Gingrich and others in an appeal to reform the presidential debates. Although none of our reforms were accepted in the 2008 format, the debate moderator often intervened to produce more back-and-forth discussion by the candidates, something we had especially called for. I hope that, at this very early point in the planning for the 2012 debates, the producers and the candidates will consider formalizing this and other changes in the debate format.

There is another issue which I would like to raise this early in the process. It is the issue of the timing of the naming of the vice presidential candidate. In the 2012 race, of course, the Democratic side already has its vice presidential nominee, the current Vice President Joe Biden. So my suggestions would apply this time only to the Republicans, but I mean them to apply to both parties when there is not an incumbent vice president running for re-election.

The problem, as I see it, is that the nominees of each party wait until a few days before their respective conventions before announcing their vice presidential choice. More often than not in recent years, this has produced problems for both parties.

Until the television, and now internet, age, of course, this procedure seemed to work relatively well. Presidential nominees generally chose safe and often obscure candidates for reasons of geographical, ideological and other political reasons, but the vice presidential office itself seemed less important than it does today, and vice presidents traditionally suffered silently in the shadow of the president who selected them. After World War II, and the death of four-term President Roosevelt, however, the public and the media took increasing interest in the office. President Harry Truman had become vice president when Roosevelt made a last-minute change in 1944, replacing incumbent Vice President Henry Wallace. Two months after the 1945 inauguration, Roosevelt died and the “unknown” Truman was the leader of the nation and the free world. History indicates that was a fortuitous result (especially in light of Wallace’s radical and unstable views), but subsequent choices were often problematic, either in the presidential campaign itself or later.

Truman’s choice of Alben Barkley was relatively harmless, but there was little indication that he was really prepared to assume the presidency. Dwight Eisenhower’s choice of Richard Nixon faced a scandal soon after his name was announced, but he survived it with his famous “Checkers” speech. Although Nixon later was elected president, and accomplished some important things in foreign policy, he finally had to resign his office because of Watergate. Nixon’s own vice president, Spiro Agnew, had taken bribes as an official in Maryland, but this did not come out until years later, and he, too, had to resign. 1964 GOP nominee Barry Goldwater chose Congressman William Miller for his veep, but he was unknown and little help to the GOP campaign against President Lyndon Johnson and his popular veep choice of Hubert Humphrey. In 1972, Democrat George McGovern’s vice presidential choice, Thomas Eagleton, was revealed to have had mental treatment soon after being named, and finally had to resign only days before the Democratic convention. In 1976, both nominees chose already nationally-known running mates, Bob Dole and Walter Mondale without any problems. In 1980, Ronald Reagan did the same with George H. W. Bush, but in 1984, Mondale now his party’s presidential nominee selected Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro, the first woman candidate, but there were problems with her husband’s finances, and this affected the Democratic ticket adversely. In 1988, George H.W. Bush, now his party’s presidential nominee, picked an unknown Indiana senator Dan Quayle, and was immediately criticized for the choice. Although Quayle’s treatment by the media was often unfair, and he did not excel in his campaign appearances, the ticket won. But in 1992, Democratic nominee Bill Clinton chose well-known Al Gore to be his running mate and defeated Bush-Quayle. In 1996, former GOP veep nominee Bob Dole became a presidential nominee, and picked the familiar figure of Jack Kemp as his running mate. In 2000, George W. Bush selected experienced but relatively unknown former Congressman Dick Cheney for veep, and Democratic nominee selected Joe Lieberman. Since the final result was the closest in history, and the most controversial, it could be argued that, among other factors, the vice presidential choices determined the outcome (although it must be noted that Gore-Lieberman won the popular vote by more than half a million votes).

Walter Mondale had assumed a significant new role as vice president in 1980, and this continued with both Vice Presidents Al Gore and Dick Cheney. Vice presidential nominees (and vice presidents) frequently become presidential nominees. Today, the candidates for vice president are rightfully examined almost as closely as the presidential candidates.

In 2004, Democratic nominee John Kerry chose his senate colleague and major opponent, John Edwards to be his running mate. As with Spiro Agnew, an existing scandal involving Edwards did not become known during the campaign, nor during the 2008 election when Edwards ran again for president, but the scandal did come out later and has destroyed his political career. Sarah Palin was John McCain’s choice in 2008, and like Dan Quayle was often treated unfairly by the press. She was named at the last-minute, and most of her problems in the campaign arose from her inexperience on the national stage.

My point is that naming a vice presidential choice a week or two, or a few days, before a presidential convention carries unnecessary risk. Interestingly, it was Ronald Reagan in 1976, fighting a close contest with President Gerald Ford, who came up with a better approach. He did it for short-term political reasons. Trailing Ford early in the primaries, Reagan chose Pennsylvania Senator Richard Schweiker to be on his ticket long before the traditional time, and during the primary season. Although he ultimately lost to Ford, the strategy helped Reagan.

In short, I am suggesting that the presidential candidates for both parties name their vice presidential choices early in the campaign. This gives the public and the media plenty of time for vetting the candidate, and avoids last-minute political problems that have often plagued presidential campaigns. It has the added benefit of enabling the presidential and vice presidential nominees to get to know one another, and to find the best way the vice presidential nominee can help in the final part of the campaign against the opposing party. A third benefit is that it gives the vice presidential nominee valuable national campaign experience.There is little downside to this new procedure, even as the old way, with Google-type searches and a myriad of blogs, is increasingly fraught with the political danger.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

An Unexpected Hero of Our Time: Juan Carlos

A few days ago, Prime Minister Jose Luis Zapatero of Spain attended a conference of leaders of Spanish speaking countries in Chile. Among those also attending was that democratically-elected gangster Hugo Chavez, president of Venezuela (but soon to be dictator). Mr. Chavez loves to make long anti-American leftist harangues, and when his turn came to speak, he decided to go after former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, a long-time ally of the U.S. who, when in office, supported President Bush in Iraq. Mr. Zapatero, a socialist, defeated Mr. Aznar (and the two remain bitter opponents), but he found himself defending his rival to Mr. Chavez as "a man who was elected by the Spanish people." Mr. Chavez does not care about this principle (he said he will sidestep the Venezuelan constitution to stay in office beyond the allotted two terms), and kept interrupting Mr. Zapatero (a fellow socialist) in a most boorish fashion.

Finally, a man seated next to Mr. Zapatero, leaned over and in a loud vice said to Mr. Chavez, as if they were two men in a working class tapas bar in the Madrid rastro (flea market), "Why don't you shut up?" ("Por que no te callas?")

The man, of course, was the Spanish head of state, King Juan Carlos, and not one known for crude talk. Nevertheless, his riposte has now become a cheer throughout the Spanish-speaking world, and in not a few other places as well.

Forty years ago, I attended the University of Madrid It was during the closing years of the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco who had triumphed in the bloody Spanish Civil War of 1936-39, and had ruled Spain with an iron hand for 30 years. Although Franco was to remain in power until he died in 1975, he had been planning his succession. Realizing that Europe and the world was changing, he needed a respectable head of state who would permit his falangist right wing ideology to continue after his death. The previous king of Spain had been overthrown in a revolution by the brief Spanish republic (1931-39), and was living in exile. His son, Don Juan, was the crown prince and heir to the throne. The problem for Mr. Franco, however, was that Don Juan was a liberal figure (as royalty goes) and a long-time critic of the Franco regime.

The Spanish dictator came up with a way out. Don Juan's son, Juan Carlos, was then only a child, and Franco offered to allow Juan Carlos to return to Spain by himself and receive his education under Franco's tutelage. This was finally agreed to, and Juan Carlos returned to Spain, eventually enrolling at the University of Madrid sometime before I did. I never met the young prince, but on occasion I would see a line of black cars pull up on campus, and when I inquired who that was, I was told it was Juan Carlos. I met a young officer on Franco's general staff at that time, and he said they were calling Juan Carlos "Juan el Breve" ("Juan the Brief") in private military circles, suggesting that his reign as king would be very short after Franco's death. But it did not work out that way. After Franco died, the law decreed that Juan Carlos would become head of state. The civilian government was fairly liberal, and finally the falangist right wing staged a coup in 1981. They took over the parliament building, holding the deputies hostage, and waited for the army to fall in behind their revolution. It did not happen. The reason was that King Juan Carlos, his queen and family, remained in the royal palace in Madrid, and refused to recognize the coup. He then telephoned the various commanders of the Spanish army, and demanded that they support him and Spanish democracy. Reported plots to kidnap and even assassinate the king were everywhere, so that Juan Carlos's action was extraordinarily courageous, not only politically but physically as well. The king won the confrontation, and the second Spanish democratic government was saved. Overnight, Juan Carlos became a huge hero throughout Spain.

Twenty-five years later, Juan Carlos remains personally popular, but secular and liberal Spain has produced calls to end the monarchy. The king's son, the Prince of Asturias, does not enjoy his father's popularity (Is this reminiscent of contemporary Great Britain and its royal family?), and the Spanish media is filled with small royal scandals all the time, including the latest, the divorce of the eldest princess.

After the king's retort to Mr. Chavez, some Spanish commentators suggested it was not dignified for the king to speak in this way, as if he was making it into a street fight. Numerous British left-wing media and other continental commentators actually took Chavez's side. (This should be no surprise, considering the venomous hatred of the U.S. in European media circles,) There has been very limited coverage of this story in American mainstream media.

But almost everywhere else, the king's rebuke has become a new rallying cry. In Venzuela, the opposition to Mr. Chavez has adopted "Por que no te callas?" as its slogan. A reggae ballad has already been composed, and along with videos of the incident, is available world wide on You Tube and its equivalents.

The irony of all of this is that Juan Carlos is the descendant of generations of Spanish Bourbon kings whose most distinguished achievements other than brutal and rapacious conquest, include being portrayed by the sublime Spanish masterGoya (portraits of Spanish royalty by Velazquez were of another royal dynasty, the Hapsburgos, that preceded the Bourbons) and in being the protagonists in 19th century Italian operas. Most of the Spanish kings oversaw the savage colonization of South and Central America which suppressed advanced Aztec, Mayan and Incan civilizations (including, it should be noted, the forbears of Mr. Chavez) and produced eventually the politically unstable regimes that are so common in South and Central America today.

I don't know if Juan Carlos's controversial rebuke to Mr. Chavez will, in itself, save the Spanish monarchy, but one more time, this under-rated member of one of the world's few surviving monarchies has defied expectations and shown himself to be a cut above many of those who have been elected to high office.

Can you imagine Neville Chamberlain telling Adolf Hitler to shut up in Munich?


-This article was originally published in Real Clear Politics on November 17th, 2009.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Indian Summer, 2009

Where I live, in the north midwest, we have been enjoying an extended period of so-called Indian Summer, a late-autumn interval that occurs most (but not all) years just before winter arrives with its full force of cold and snow. In these parts, winters are frequently bitter, and the weather forecasters are predicting a very bitter one this year.

A really vintage Indian Summer, and I would rate this year's as one of those, is like a vintage wine. It's more complex, richer and deeper than most Indian Summers, and it is meant to savor, to indulge the self in, to participate with the landscape which harbors it for a brief time. We have Indian Summers where I grew up, along Lake Erie, beautiful and warm, but not so much premonitions of the reversal of climate that is to come.

Most of my readers know me as a journalist who writes about American politics and international affairs. A smaller number know I am also a literary writer who has created a body of work in poetry and short fiction, as well as a few efforts in theater. The path I took to write as a journalist was one of economic survival, but I did not abandon the poems and short stories. Nevertheless, my second education in the "real" world of elections, business, and campaigns often trumped my education as an artist.

We have all observed a remarkable interval in our country, and in the world, in the past 20 years, as we left the so-called Cold War behind us, and proceeded without a road map to the next circumstances on our little planet. My journalist self has dominated my consciousness and my daily attention, as the fascinating details of new relationships, new wars, new political personalities, and life's mysterious way of always surprising us with unplanned events have overtaken us.

I notice lately, however, that my literary self is stirring, and I believe this is no accident. Some persons think of themselves, and appear to others, as pessimists. Others say they are, and appear to others, as optimists. To paraphrase a line from Robert Frost's "Fire and Ice," I see see the pessimism, but optimism is also "nice, and would suffice." My journalist self writes about an orderly world combating disorder. My literary self responds to those moments in time when disorder seems out of control. It is less logical and more intuitive.

This is a long way of saying that disorder and human vulnerability is growing all around us. We have been inundated with such constant new information, mechanical technologies, changed velocities of virtually all the tools our species uses every day, and provocations of our senses, that we seem to be losing some of the natural and necessary processes that keep life in some kind of balance.

Does this mean revolutions and social upheaval? Does it mean more or less totalitarian regimes and ideologies? Does it mean new forms of violence and repression? To be honest, I don't know what it means. But the reordering of the conditions of the world means that it is not going to be business as usual in the years and decades ahead.

Readers who would rather read about my analyses of the 2010 elections and the 2012 presidential contest, and I suspect that is most of my readers, need not worry that I will now send out on The Prairie Editor and my website a plethora of unfathomable and portentous diatribes and prophecies. I will return to the here-and-now of our curious political life soon enough.

But I thought I might mention, as I savor the Indian Summer of 2009, my intuitions of something bigger and perhaps more ominous also waiting for us ahead.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Comic Relief

Hand it to the Nobel Peace Prize committee --- just when the world needs some comic relief, they know how to provide it! Scandinavia is now the center of stand-up comedy, and the whole world is laughing.

It used to be the most prestigious prize in the world; now it is only a joke. Yasir Arafat, Jimmy Carter, Al Gore and Neville Chamberlain all received the Peace Prize for doing nothing but having alleged good intentions and a dubious plan. Now you need only have alleged good intentions.

Wait! You say Neville Chamberlain did NOT receive the peace prize? You're right, but it was a serious oversight. Everyone knows that man had good intentions.

Giving the prize this year to Mr. Obama also removes the suspense about who will receive the prize next year. Clearly, Hugo Chavez has a lock on it for 2010. Count on those folks from the Nobel committee to keep us in stitches.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Why Rush Limbaugh Matters

Rush Limbaugh matters. This may seem strange to say about one of the most popular and controversial figures in American public life, but I think it needs to be said in this most curious and possibly dangerous moment in our nation’s relatively short public communications history.

I do not always agree with Mr. Limbaugh. In fact, I thought his stand, echoed by several other radio talk show hosts, on immigration was partly wrong-headed. I did agree that we needed to close our borders to illegal immigrants, even building a wall in Texas to assist in that. I did agree that we needed to register all non-citizen residents, legal or otherwise. And I did agree that any illegal immigrant who commits a crime in the United States should be immediately deported after conviction in a proper trial. But I did not, and do not, agree that most illegal immigrants should be ejected from our country. Interestingly, for all their incessant commentary and advocacy for deportation or other severe penalties, Mr. Limbaugh and his allies did not prevail.

That’s because most Americans, Republicans, Democrats and independents did not agree.

Rush Limbaugh is a partisan conservative, but not always a partisan Republican. Yes, Rush Limbaugh has his idiosyncracies; yes, he is in part an entertainer and sometimes overdramatizes; and yes, he makes mistakes, but who of us does not?

On the other hand, anyone who listens to his radio broadcasts knows that he is preoccupied with serious subjects about American public policies, domestic and international. In spite of a veneer of verbal pride and egotism, much of which I take to be at least half self-deprecating by its droll excess, there is a sophisticated understanding of politics, public policy issues, and human psychology that exceeds any of his radio host colleagues on the left and the right. No politician I know can match his impact in the political market place.

He has recently been a target of Democratic activists who view him as a threat. Their efforts, however, only expanded his base. He now has, I am told, about 30 million listeners. There have been, and probably now are, entertainers with a greater following. But I can’t think of a political commentator, liberal or conservative, who can match him now, or ever, possibly with the exception of Will Rogers in the 1930’s, with as much attention among the public atlarge.

The real reason Rush Limbaugh matters, however, is because he represents a vital part of the check to a prevailing trend in the old established media which is uncritical of current events and developments in Washington, DC, in the Congress and the White House, and elsewhere. These events and developments are attempting to move our country in directions that do not have the consent of the governed. A national media uncritically allied with a political establishment is a very dangerous matter in our republic, whether that alliance is liberal or conservative.

There is currently an effort to silence Rush Limbaugh and many of his colleagues by reinstating the discredited so-called Fairness Doctrine. As David Rehr, the former president of the National Association of Broadcasters, says, “the Fairness Doctrine is not fair.” That is because the requirements of the Fairness Doctrine would prevent broadcast stations from presenting anyone with a political viewpoint without having to provide equal time to virtually anyone who demands it. Since this is impossible, in practical terms, opinion journalism would disappear from the airwaves. With the myriad of media outlets in radio, TV, cable, print and the internet now available, the Fairness Doctrine is hopelessly out of date.

President Obama rightfully said during the 2008 presidential campaign that he opposed the Fairness Doctrine, and after taking office, reaffirmed that view. But Democratic leaders in the Congress, obviously trying to silence their critics, have nontheless pushed forward efforts to restore the Doctrine. Since there seems to be little support in the Congress among members to do so, advocates of reinstatement have suggested a “backdoor” approach through the Federal Communications Commission. Such a maneuver might work, unless the public is made aware of it, and expresses its opposition.

If politicians in Washington, DC today are successful in silencing Rush Limbaugh and others who voice dissent, a new set of politicians in a few years will likewise succeed in silencing dissent to a conservative president and Congress. Such a pattern could not be more disastrous to free speech and a healthy representative democracy.

This is what’s at stake, and why Rush Limbaugh matters.

Friday, August 28, 2009

The Real Tom Ridge Book Controversy

The media has it all wrong about the real controversy in Tom Ridge’s new book, “The Test of Our Times.’ Many of them, and other assorted talking heads in The Beltway, are preoccupied with one sentence in the former (and first) secretary of homeland security’s account of the birth of the new cabinet rank department created in 2003.

That sentence states Ridge’s belief that the effort to raise the terrorist alert level just before the 2004 election was politically motivated. Although he names no one in that sentence, its proximity to the discussion which led Ridge to the conclusion suggests it includes then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Attorney General John Ashcroft, and some prominent members of the Bush administration inner circle (but not the president himself). Since I don’t believe that Ridge intended to point the figure to individuals, but rather intended to comment on the political culture that existed at the time, The sentence may have been poorly placed, but in no way does it deserve so much media attention.

Critics of the Bush years in the White House of course leaped into the fray claiming it was further proof of Bush villainy in the Iraq war effort, and Bush loyalists came out swinging, charging Ridge with disloyalty for the sake of promoting his book.

The mistakes and mis-characterizations these two opposing, yet equally venomous groups, are many. Most important of all, the book contains many serious suggestions about how to fix and enhance the current state of American homeland security, and that is being lost in the current media-manufactured controversy.

First, some full disclosure. I am from Tom Ridge’s hometown of Erie, PA, and have known him for almost 30 years. My blurb praising the book is on the back dust cover. (The latter also means that I am one of the few persons who has actually read the whole book, which has a publication date of September 1).

This is not meant to be a review of the book, but rather to serve as a corrective to the current bombast of ego and political territory possession that has only just begun, and will probably play out for days and weeks in the hyper-media cauldron of the nation’s capital and its political class.

In August, 2004, Ridge was asked to, and did, include a line praising President Bush’s efforts for homeland security in his remarks. Ridge considers that a mistake on his part, and says so. As election day approached, Ridge became more determined to keep politics out of his department’s work, and when it was suggested to him by some to raise the alert after a Bin Laden video was released just days before the election, he felt it would be inappropriate, as did, he points out, everyone in his department, as well as others in the national security loop, including FBI chief Robert Mueller, and Secretary of State Colin Powell. Rumsfeld and Ashcroft, and a some others, disagreed. Meetings were held, and the decision was made NOT to raise the alert. Flacks for the Bush administration have made the legalistic argument that no one explicitly said they had political reasons during these discussions, which of course was probably true since the way Washington works is that political motivations are almost always disguised behind deceptive rhetoric.

At no point in the book does Ridge directly criticize George W. Bush, on this or any other issue. Unlike the pathetic Scott McLellan, the former Bush press secretary, or former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, Ridge waited until after Bush left office to write his book, and does not use his book to wreak revenge. In fact, one of my few criticisms of the book is that Ridge’s loyalty to his friend who became president prevents us from knowing what he thinks the president’s role was on security issues other than his successes.

If anyone should be upset with this book, it should be Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Ridge has been most critical, in print and on the air, of the current Congress for not closing the critical security problem of regulating our knowledge of non-American citizens leaving the country. Since 2003 (put into place under Ridge’s watch), we have detailed information of visitors coming into the country, but we do not apply the same rigor to when (or if) they leave. Readers may remember that the September 11 terrorists legally entered the U.S., but that we did not keep proper watch on whether they had departed in the proper time.

Washington is filled with hypersensitive egos whose importance are almost always exaggerated in their own minds, and with those who, for a time, hold public office, elected or appointed, and consider it their “property.” Many media spectacles in The Beltway are overwrought skirmishes over the public perception of this sensationalism, most of which quickly devolves into farce.

In this instance, I am suggesting, the distraction could mean the loss of the important discussion that Tom Ridge has attempted to engender with his book, to wit, what is the true state of homeland security in the nation today, and what can we do to improve it.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Ohio’s Next Favorite Son?

More and more, young men and women are not selecting elected public service as their career choice.

But I just met a young man, 31 years old, who is a two-term state legislator from Ohio. His name is Joshua Mandel, but everyone calls him Josh. Earlier, he had served on the city council of his suburban Cleveland community. Next year, he will probably be the Republican nominee for Ohio state treasurer and win that post. Barring the unforeseen, this is only the beginning of a remarkable political career.

Most Americans do not remember that Ohio has produced more presidents of the United States than any other state. It used to be called “the cradle of the presidency.” The last Ohioan to occupy the White House was Warren Harding. Before that, William Henry Harrison, Ulysses Grant, Rutherford Hayes, James Garfield, Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley, and William Howard Taft hailed from the Buckeye State, and all of them, except for the first Harrison, were born there.

I do not know if Joshua Mandel will someday join that list, but I think it’s safe to say that state treasurer will not be his last political destination.

Mandel has already served two terms as president of the Ohio State University student government, two terms as city councilman, and two terms as a state legislator. In that same decade, he also attended and graduated from law school, got married, and served two tours as a combat intelligence U.S. marine in Iraq. He volunteered for the second tour, working in volatile and dangerous Anbar province. Mandel, like Tom Ridge before him, did not join the armed services as an officer after college. He enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps, was first in his boot camp class, and later first in his class at Marine intelligence school. He holds the rank of staff sergeant. He was awarded two Marine Corps achievement medals during his combat tours.

As a campaigner, Mandel is already something of a legend. He was given little chance to win in any of his races, including the one at Ohio State. He won them all, primarily because he campaigned relentlessly and prodigiously, knocking on tens of thousands of doors and raising large amounts of campaign funds. His legislative district is mostly Democratic. Far left Congressman Dennis Kucinich represents half of Mandel’s district. But Republican Mandel won his most recent race with 71% of the votes. During his first term, Mandel volunteered for his second tour of duty in Iraq, Returning from that tour just in time to campaign for re-election, his Democratic opponent ran as ad saying that Mandel had been an “absentee” legislator. This was exactly the wrong thing to say about a man fighting for his country as a combat marine, particularly someone like Josh Mandel, who returned to win a landslide in a district that normally votes heavily Democratic.

Nor is Mandel bashful about his economic conservatism. While on the city council, he proposed a property tax decrease for suburban Lyndhurst. His colleagues on the council laughed out loud. They didn’t laugh, however, when 500 residents showed up at the next council meeting (usually 5-10 persons attend) and demanded the tax decrease. It passed, and was the first and only municipal property tax decrease anywhere in Ohio in memory. In the legislature, Mandel has taken the lead in several conservative tax and finance issues, including overhaul of workman’s compensation investment, and also serves on the public utilities committee as vice chairman, and on the criminal justice, judiciary and alternative energy committees. Mandel promises watchdog and conservative reform in the state treasurer’s office.

Watching Mandel perform as he tours the country to raise funds for his next race (his goal is to raise a million dollars one year before the treasurer’s race begins in earnest), there is no question that he is already something of a political presence. Bright, aggressive, quite articulate and seemingly fearless, he leaves his audiences with a sense they have met a future political superstar. He has a story to tell, and he knows how to tell it. including about two grandfathers who were the greatest influence on his life, one a Holocaust survivor from Poland, and the other a World War II veteran. Proudly Jewish, Mandel pointedly cites how the Italian Jewish side of his family were saved from the Nazis by the Catholic Church.

These are not good times for the Republican Party in Ohio and the nation. Only a few years ago, Republicans were in charge almost everywhere. Now they are in minorities, and struggling to redefine conservatism for the years ahead. Young talented persons in both parties seem more and more reluctant to enter public service with the brutal state of election campaigns, the preoccupation with fundraising, and the severe restriction on privacy and personal lives.

Josh Mandel is, for now, a contrarian phenomenon, already a model of political energy and conservative pragmatism, with accomplishments way ahead of his years, and a young man apparently going someplace, and soon.