Archive for the ‘Egan’ Category

Timothy Egan

June 11, 2016

Ms. Collins is off today.  Mr. Egan, while not a regular op-ed writer is a contributor from time to time.  What he has to say today is worthy of serious consideration.  In “Lord of the Lies” he suggests that given the scale of Trump’s mendacity, we should go into the fall debates with a new rule: an instant fact-check on statements made by the candidates.  Here he is:

Earlier this month, the world’s most battle-scarred cable news network did something extraordinary in this year of vaporous political contrails. While Donald Trump was delivering one of his easily debunked lies, CNN fact-checked him — in near real time at the bottom of the screen.

“Trump: I never said Japan should have nukes (he did).” Thus read the chyron that shook the television world — maybe.

I no more expect CNN to set Wolf Blitzer’s beard on fire than to instantly call out the Mount Everest of liars. Trump lies about big things (there is no drought in California) and small things (his hair spray could not affect the ozone layer because it’s sealed within Trump Tower). He lies about himself, and the fake self he invented to talk about himself. He’s been shown to lie more than 70 times in a single event.

Given the scale of Trump’s mendacity and the stakes for the free world, it’s time that we go into the fall debates with a new rule — an instant fact-check on statements made by the candidates onstage. The Presidential Debate Commission should do what any first-grader with Google access can do, and call out lies before the words hit the floor.

Setting up a truth referee is not difficult. And while doing such a thing is unlikely to ensure that the debates would be substantive, it could at least guarantee a reality foundation at a time when fact-free speech is the language of the political class.

How can we discuss the economy when Trump suggests that the unemployment rate, just under 5 percent, is actually 42 percent? Or debate the Paris climate accord, when Trump falsely claims it “gives foreign bureaucrats control over how much energy we use on our land”? Or deal with terrorism, after Trump said he knows “more about ISIS than the generals.” The debates are meaningless without a neutral party screening the garbage.

Professional truth-seekers have never seen anything like Trump, surely the most compulsive liar to seek high office. To date, the nonpartisan PolitiFact has rated 76 percent of his statements lies — 57 percent false or mostly false, and another 19 percent “Pants on Fire” fabrications. Only 2 percent — 2 percent! — of his assertions were rated true, and another 6 percent mostly true. Hillary Clinton, who is not exactly known for fealty to the facts, had a 28 percent total lie score, including a mere 1 percent Pants on Fire.

The Washington Post’s Fact Checker has dinged Trump with 30 of its Four Pinocchio ratings — lying 70 percent of the time. Trump cares so little about the truth that when the Fact Checker reaches out to him for an explanation, he never responds, the paper noted.

Trump got his start on the national political stage as a liar, playing to the birther fantasies of Barack Obama’s worst haters. One of the questions he might be asked in the three fall debates is what, exactly, he discovered when he claimed his investigators “cannot believe what they’re finding” in Hawaii five years ago.

With Trump University, he created a business model built on a house of lies. An executive called it “a total lie,” and a sales manager said it was a “fraudulent scheme” designed to bilk vulnerable clients, according to court testimony. It was that class-action lawsuit that got Trump into his present caldron of lies — calling the Indiana-born judge in the case a “Mexican.” By that standard, Trump is a German, with a grandfather from Kallstadt.

Some of Trump’s lies are the everyday speech of a charlatan — trade talk. At a bizarre news conference in March, he called Trump Winery “the largest winery on the East Coast.” Not even close, according to PolitiFact. Last month he said he had more employees in New Jersey “than almost anybody.” Not a chance. There’s a word for this kind of person, the guy who spits on your tie and then tells you he likes your sheen, but The New York Times does not allow me to print it.

For a while, I tried to chart the days of his lies, and just got overwhelmed. He said the suicide of the former Clinton aide Vince Foster was “very fishy,” when five separate investigations found it to be a sad self-killing and nothing more. He could have looked at the United States Drought Monitor before saying “there is no drought” at the very California site that is now in its fifth year of an epic arid spell.

He even lies about his lies. He claimed he wanted to keep a personal donation to veterans private, when in fact he’d boasted in January of a $1 million gift, which wasn’t sent out until the press began questioning him on it months later.

Sadly, a lot of voters don’t care if a candidate is a pathological liar. But most of us should. It’s up to the debate commission, as they set the rules for the fall, to ensure that truth has a place on the stage.

In the comments “Jim S.” from Cleveland had another suggestion:  “Rather than just putting a crawl at the bottom of the screen, which given production delays would likely no longer be about the topic being discussed, provide feedback to the moderators via laptop or similar. Then allow the moderator to come back with “A few minutes ago, Mr. Trump, you claimed X, when in fact it is Y. How do you respond?”  Force the candidates to face up to their claims, on camera.”  The problem with that, Jim, is that no member of the broadcast media seems to be willing to call Trump out on his lies.  And his supporters don’t give a rat’s ass.

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Egan, just Egan

September 2, 2009

MoDo and The Moustache of Wisdom are off today.  Mr. Egan, in “Hunting Wolves, and Men,” says shooting for sport has revealed some dark feelings in the changing West — and some strength of character as well.  Here he is:

They started hunting gray wolves in the high reaches of the Rocky Mountains on Tuesday, the first time in years that people have been allowed to shoot for sport this genetic cousin of man’s best friend.

For those who hate wolves and long for the era when they were wiped off the map, and for those who welcomed back this call of the wild, the last few days have revealed some dark feelings in the changing West — and some strength of character as well.

A Republican candidate for governor of Idaho, Rex Rammell, was at a political barbecue last week when somebody brought up the tags used by wolf hunters, and then made a reference to killing the president of the United States.

“Obama tags?” Rammell replied, to laughter, according to an account in The Times-News of Twin Falls. “We’d buy some of those.”

In the Idaho of the past, jokes about shooting a president could sometimes be dismissed without consequence. Indeed, the comment was buried in an initial news story about the gathering, and Rammell sloughed it off later, saying on his Web site that “Obama hunting tags was just a joke! Everyone knows Idaho has no jurisdiction to issue tags in Washington, D.C.”

Ha-ha. What a knee-slapper, these assassination jokes. And besides, he couldn’t hunt down Obama with out-of-state tags. Get it?

This episode was not unlike a town hall meeting last month in the northern California district of Wally Herger, a Republican congressman. When people show up at an event that is supposed to be about health care, and get their applause by proclaiming themselves to be “a proud, right-wing terrorist,” as one man did in front of an approving Herger, you know they could care less about defined insurance benefits.

As with wolves, the fear has many faces, and the true source of it is seldom clear.

But what followed in Idaho was rare in a year of endangered civility. The Idaho Republican establishment came down hard on Rammell, condemning the comments of a fringe candidate who channels voices that have found a wide airing in the YouTube age.

Of course, the reaction could be driven by self-interest. For years, Idaho officials have been trying to convince businesses that their state is not a hotbed of hate-filled rubes, gun-toting racists and assorted nut jobs getting their information from Glenn Beck. Tech companies that thrive in the New West metro area of Boise and the outdoor paradise of the north say the state’s reputation has severely hurt efforts to recruit ethnic minorities.

But this is a changed state in a quick-stirring part of the country — not necessarily less Republican, but certainly less tolerant of the kind of hate speech that used to flow with warm beer on late nights at the wacko corral. Obama, the candidate, drew about 14,000 people in his appearance in Boise last year — putting it among the largest political gatherings in state history. He got just under 47 percent of the vote in Ada County, the state’s most populous.

The wolf hunt has brought out feelings that have less to do with Canis lupus than with something more deep-seated. Gray wolves were exterminated long ago in most Western states, a campaign of blood lust, terror and bounty kills. In some counties it was against the law not to put wolf poison on the fence post. Their return by federal wildlife officials has been such a success that two states, Montana and Idaho, have authorized hunting to keep the numbers in check.

Whether the reintroduced wolf packs — which feast on elk, deer and occasional domestic livestock — can still flourish even with the hunt is an issue now before the courts. But this call to arms against an animal that has been historically misunderstood by most anyone whose name is not St. Francis of Assisi is in part a fear of letting the wild back into Western lands.

Rammell himself is a prime exhibit of a nature-phobe. Until 2007, he made his living in elk ranching, which he calls “a novel agricultural enterprise.” Imagine this majestic creature at dawn in a high mountain meadow, in all its glory. Now imagine it inside a fenced-off plot while someone tries to domesticate it into stupidity. That’s elk ranching.

As for wolves, Rammell wants them all dead, dead, dead. “I believe wolves need to be eliminated,” he says on his Web site. Does it matter to him that they roamed every Western state long before Rex Rammell starting tossing one-liners to red-faced Republicans blowing on their soup at the diner?

Probably not. But judging by the success of tourism built around wolf sightings, the four-legged hunter is back in the West to stay. Still, it would help all concerned if what we talk about when talking about wolves was just that.

MoDo and Egan

August 19, 2009

The Moustache of Wisdom is off today.  MoDo, in “Lust, American Style,” says there’s no such thing as a private affair anymore. We live in a transparent era atwitter with indecent exposure.  Mr. Egan gets all stoopid in “Prairie Health Care Companion.”  His brilliant idea is that as the public health care option gets hammered by a campaign of disinformation, the co-op model deserves a fair hearing.  Hey, Sparky — you’re supposed to be a fracking journalist.  Howzabout trying to put out some, you know, information to counteract the disinformation?  I know, I know, it’s a difficult concept to grasp…  Here’s MoDo:

Sadly, there’s no such thing as a private affair anymore.

We live in a transparent era atwitter with indecent exposure.

Next up in bookstores: “Madoff’s Other Secret: Love, Money, Bernie, and Me,” by Sheryl Weinstein, a 60-year-old former executive with the Jewish women’s group Hadassah, who writes that she was romantically involved with the fraudulent financier in the early ‘90s, though both were married.

The last thing you probably need in your head at this point are images of the Wall Street sociopath nuzzling and nickering. Weinstein, according to a preview in The New York Daily News, gets her revenge for losing her life savings by revealing that Madoff’s unimpressive assets were not merely financial. She also recalls that her friends called her Bernie “Winky Dink” because he blinked anxiously when he was around her.

Jenny Sanford is still sharing about her husband’s affair as well. Her interview in Vogue is accompanied by a leggy photo of the 47-year-old in a beach cover-up that looks like a fetching ad for a new, less embarrassing husband.

She has moved out of the governor’s mansion but says she’s still open to getting back together, noting that pastoral and marriage counseling taught her that “these affairs are almost like an addiction to alcohol or pornography.”

“I think,” she tells the interviewer, “my husband has got some issues that he needs to work on, about happiness and what happiness means.”

She couldn’t resist Googling her husband’s Maria and generously deemed her “pretty.” “I am sure she is a fine person,” she says. “It can’t be fun for her, though I do sometimes question her judgment. If she knew the newspaper had those e-mails back in December, why did she want him to come in June?”

Jenny, who says she wasn’t “madly in love” with Mark Sanford when she married him, is praying for her husband’s soul mate. Her friends agreed that she’d be fine with or without him; one commented that, for a long time, Mark “has been dead on the inside.”

There’s even a TV show inspired by the wives of misbehaving politicians — women who long to never hear the words “long suffering” again. In the new CBS drama “The Good Wife,” Julianna Margulies channels Jenny, Silda, Hillary and Elizabeth, summoning stoicism even when her teenage daughter tells her, “Some girl said Dad slept with a hooker my age.”

When the Sanford scandal broke, some chatterers contended that it was a sign that we should have more women in public office because they get less caught up in sexual intrigue.

A pol paying for sex with a call girl is an old story. But even Heidi Fleiss dropped plans for a bordello for female clients outside Pahrump, Nev., telling The Las Vegas Review-Journal that she’s now focused on alternative energy because “that’s where the money is.”

The only place at the moment where you can see women forking over money to have sex with a gigolo is on HBO’s salaciously named “Hung.” The kooky comedy is about a divorced Detroit high school basketball coach, Ray Drecker (played by the hunky Thomas Jane), who needs money after his house burns down and his twin teenagers are forced to go live with their mother.

He decides to sell his best asset, dubbing himself “a happiness consultant,” and teams up with an unlikely pimp, Tanya Skagle (played by Jane Adams), an aspiring poet who listens to PBS and has “Proust” tattooed on her forearm.

His first lesson on the job is that women frequently derive sensual happiness in a more complex way than men. One of his first clients is a sexy blond ad executive who has had bad luck with guys. He is befuddled to find he must fulfill her fantasies rather than her libido — running along the lake laughing and picnicking with her; going to couples therapy and pretending to be a rich ex-boyfriend; and feigning falling madly in love with her because it’s their fate.

After paying him cash to pick her up by the side of the road, she accuses him of making “an inappropriate pass.” His Proustian pimp has to explain that the young woman with the “bruised heart” is seeking a romantic connection more than a physical one.

“O.K.,” he says with exasperation. “I’ll pretend I’m totally in love with this freak.”

After many rewrites and redos, Drecker tries to summon the necessary acting chops to give his client what she’s paying for. In the parking lot of the roadside diner where they keep eating, a la “Groundhog Day,” while he struggles to figure out what this woman wants, he grasps for a better performance.

“I just wish in some crazy long-shot version of this universe,” he tells her, “that you would stay here with me and not vanish from my life.”

When he spits out the word “destiny,” he finally manages to please her — momentarily.

Now here’s Mr. Egan, who usually makes more sense.  He’s writing from Seattle:

Finding Democrats in the north of Idaho can be like panning for gold in the East River of New York. The area is white, rural and extremely conservative.

But if you get sick in that land of deep lakes and ponderosa pines, a consumer-governed, nonprofit health care provider — Group Health Cooperative of Puget Sound — offers extensive coverage at some of the lowest premiums in the nation. And if you need advice on bailing twine or baby chicks, the Co-op Country Store, now in its 75th year, can provide service that the nearby Home Depot cannot.

I mention these successful member-owned businesses in a deeply red state because as the public health care option gets hammered by a campaign of disinformation, the co-op model deserves a fair hearing.

Co-ops may not work as the best way to extend care to the more than 45 million Americans without coverage. But they do tend to keep private insurers honest, are fairly good at controlling costs, and will be harder to demonize. When Sarah Palin starts making things up about co-ops, as she did with the famous nonexistent death panels, she’ll be lying about a familiar model for many Alaskans.

Plus, co-ops are built around something that’s been missing thus far in a debate dominated by ill-informed shouters: the consumer.

The West is the native ground of co-ops. It’s in our collective DNA. People buy their tents, sleeping bags and bikes from the nation’s largest consumer co-op, REI, founded in Seattle in 1938, now with 3.5 million active members. It’s consistently rated one of the best places to work in the United States.

Yes, people wince at paying $20 for a water bottle, but they can bring it back any time — and usually count on part of the purchase price returning to them in the form an annual dividend. Last year, REI paid the highest dividend in its history: $73 million.

By way of disclosure, I should say I belong to REI, not out of any political conviction, but because I can get stuff there that I can’t find anywhere else, the sales people are not commission-motivated, and I like that dividend check.

Group Health, founded here in 1947, serves nearly 600,000 people in Washington and northern Idaho, with doctor-choice and an emphasis on preventive care. It’s consumer-governed and nonprofit.

But perhaps because those consumers who run Group Health are less cold-hearted than insurance company bureaucrats, Group Health is sometimes seen as too generous, and thus unable to control costs as much as it would like. Still, the business model has much to contribute.

All over the West, people get their electricity, their hardware, their water from co-ops, and sell their apples, their wheat, their medical services in the same way. I can see why Senator Kent Conrad, the Democrat from North Dakota, has been pushing co-ops. They come out of the prairie progressive tradition.

For now, Republicans have decided to wage a scorched-earth policy on health reform, a strategy that may restore them to power but won’t do a thing for the majority of Americans concerned about the future. Palin, auditioning for the role of most willfully ignorant politician in America, and Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the grumpy old man who is supposed to be a serious voice for bipartisan legislation, have told whoppers about killing grandma, and have become heroes to their base because of it.

They will lie about the co-op model as well. “You can call it a co-op,” said Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, “which is another way of saying a government plan.”

But it’s not, as hikers and farmers in Utah can tell him, or as Mormon-run welfare and retail outlets in Salt Lake City could attest.

Here in Seattle, a city known for a certain kind of caffeinated capitalism, Group Health is a major market player, and a big reason why our health care premiums are cheaper than those in most cities. We also have public power, giving us some of the lowest electrical rates anywhere, and a chain of co-op grocery stores, which I find a bit too granola-crunchy for my tastes, but which others swear by.

In order for the co-ops to get beyond the vague outlines that Senator Conrad has put forth, they will need some government seed money, $4 billion to $6 billion by most estimates — a mere week in the life of bank bailouts. They will also need to be large enough to compete, as Group Health does here.

But if there’s any doubt a health care co-op can work, ask the people who own one, including more than 11,000 consumers in the sparsely populated, deeply Republican north of Idaho.

Sweet heavenly saints [slaps forehead].  OF COURSE that’s the answer!  If it works for 11,000 people Republicans in the middle of nowhere it MUST be ideal for, say, New York City.  Sheeeit….

Dowd, Friedman, Egan and Rich

August 16, 2009

In “Sarah’s Ghoulish Carousel” MoDo says that despite putting out a proclamation in 2008 to plan ahead for health care decisions, Sarah Palin has managed to hijack the health care debate from President Obama with one catchy phrase.  The Moustache of Wisdom is writing from Chief’s Island in Botswana.  In “The Land of ‘No Service’ ” he says while maintaining “No Service” in the wild is essential for Africa’s ecotourism industry, the rest of the continent desperately needs more connectivity if it is to prosper.  Mr. Egan and Mr. Rich apparently watch the same TV shows.  In “The Distant Mirror” Mr. Egan says as much fun as it is to revel in fascination at the early 1960s seen in “Mad Men,” the series works best as a startling reminder of just how distant the near past really is.  Mr. Rich, in ” ‘Mad Men’ Crashes Woodstock’s Birthday,” says while the 40th anniversary of Woodstock is getting much air time this summer, perhaps it is Don Draper’s America, the early ’60s country-at-a-pivot-point, that really resonates today.  Here’s MoDo:

I’m not sure the man who popped off and tweeted that Sonia Sotomayor was a “Latina woman racist” is the best Henry Higgins for the Eliza Doolittle of Alaska.

But Newt Gingrich was a professor. And he does know something about pulling yourself up by dragging down others and imploding when you take center stage — both Palin specialties.

Besides, he agrees with Sarah — who fretted that her parents and son Trig might be in danger from Obama “death panels” — that we should be very wary about trusting government with end-of-life decisions.

So Newt took it upon himself to become Palin’s Pygmalion. He told Politico that the out-of-work pol should write a book; take a commentator gig on TV; get a condo in D.C. or New York to use as an East Coast base; and prepare three types of speeches — one “to make money,” another to “project her brand” before universities and interest groups, and a vivid campaign stump speech to use for Republican candidates in 2010.

Most important, he advised, the dizzy Palin has to be “clear in her own head what she wants to do.”

At the moment, what she wants to do is tap into her visceral talent for aerial-shooting her favorite human prey: cerebral Ivy League Democrats.

Just as she was able to stir up the mob against Barack Obama on the trail, now she is fanning the flames against another Harvard smarty-pants — Dr. Zeke Emanuel, a White House health care adviser and the older brother of Rahmbo.

She took a forum, Facebook, more commonly used by kids hooking up and cyberstalking, and with one catchy phrase, several footnotes and a zesty disregard for facts, managed to hijack the health care debate from Mr. Obama.

Sarahcuda knows, from her brush with Barry on the campaign trail, that he is vulnerable on matters that demand a visceral and muscular response rather than a logical and book-learned one. Mr. Obama was charming and informed at his town hall in Montana on Friday, but he’s going to need some sustained passion, a clear plan and a narrative as gripping as Palin’s I-see-dead-people scenario.

She has successfully caricatured the White House health care effort, making it sound like the plot of the 1976 sci-fi movie “Logan’s Run,” about a post-apocalyptic society with limited resources where you can live only until age 30, when you must take part in an extermination ceremony called “Carousel” or flee the city.

Painting the Giacometti-esque Emanuel as a creepy Dr. Death, Palin attacked him on her Facebook page a week ago, complaining that his “Orwellian thinking” could lead to a “death panel” with bureaucrats deciding whether to pull the plug on less hardy Americans.

Never mind that Palin herself had endorsed some of the same end-of-life counseling she now depicts as putting Grandma down.

As the Democratic National Committee pointed out, Palin put out a 2008 proclamation for Healthcare Decisions Day “to raise public awareness of the need to plan ahead for healthcare decisions, related to end of life care … and to encourage the specific use of advance directives to communicate these important healthcare decisions.”

Consistency was long ago sent to a death panel in Palin world.

Sensing traction, she took more shots against Dr. Emanuel, quoting the bioethicist’s past writing that some medical services might not be guaranteed to those “who are irreversibly prevented from being or becoming participating citizens. … An obvious example is not guaranteeing health services to patients with dementia.”

“Dr. Emanuel,” she wrote ominously, “has also advocated basing medical decisions on a system which ‘produces a priority curve on which individuals aged between roughly 15 and 40 years get the most chance, whereas the youngest and oldest people get chances that are attenuated.’ ”

She crowed that she had him on the run, and the White House felt that the doctor, who was being portrayed as a proponent of euthanasia, needed to get out there and explain his opposition to euthanasia. So he interrupted his hiking vacation in the Italian Alps to give a raft of phone interviews saying he was taken out of context and calling Palin’s charges “completely off the wall.”

But, much to Sarah’s delight, he also conceded to The Washington Times that his “thinking has evolved” on the “very vexing” issue of deciding who gets treatment and who doesn’t.

“When I began working in the health policy area about 20 years ago … I thought we would definitely have to ration care, that there was a need to make a decision and deny people care,” he told the paper, adding that he now feels that if we get rid of expensive “unnecessary care” that “we would have absolutely no reason to even consider rationing except in a few cases.”

A few cases? Sounds like another Facebook entry for Sarah.

Here’s The Moustache of Wisdom:

If you travel long enough and far enough — like by jet to Johannesburg, by prop plane to northern Botswana and then by bush plane deep into the Okavango Delta — you can still find it. It is that special place that on medieval maps would have been shaded black and labeled: “Here there be Dragons!” But in the postmodern age, it is the place where my BlackBerry, my wireless laptop and even my satellite phone all gave me the same message: “No Service.”

Yes, Dorothy, somewhere over the rainbow, there is still a “Land of No Service” — where the only “webs” are made by spiders, where the only “net” is the one wrapped around your bed to keep out mosquitoes, where the only “ring tones” at dawn are the scream of African fish eagles and the bark of baboons, where the only GPS belongs to the lioness instinctively measuring the distance between herself and the antelope she hopes will be her next meal, and where “connectivity” refers only to the intricate food chain linking predators and prey that sustains this remarkable ecosystem.

I confess, I arrived with enough devices to stay just a teensy-weensy connected to e-mail. I wasn’t looking for the Land of No Service. But the Okavango Delta’s managers and the Wilderness Trust — a South African conservation organization that runs safaris to support its nature restoration work — take the wilderness seriously. The staff at our camp on the northwestern tip of Chief’s Island, the largest island in the delta, did have a radio, but otherwise the only sounds you heard were from Mother Nature’s symphony orchestra and the only landscapes, sunsets and color combinations were painted by the hand of God.

So, like it or not, coming here forces you to think about the blessings and curses of “connectivity.” “No Service” is something travelers from the developed world now pay for in order to escape modernity, with its ball and chain of e-mail. For much of Africa, though, “No Service” is a curse — because without more connectivity, its people can’t escape poverty. Can there be a balance between the two?

For the normally overconnected tourist, the first thing you notice in the Land of No Service is how quickly your hearing, smell and eyesight improve in an act of instant Darwinian evolution. It is amazing how well you can hear when you don’t have an iPod in your ears or how far you can see when you’re not squinting at a computer screen. In the wild, the difference between hearing and seeing with acuity is the difference between survival and extinction for the animals and the difference between a rewarding experience and a missed opportunity for photographers and guides.

It was our guide spotting a half-eaten antelope lodged high in a tree that drew our attention to its predator, a leopard, calmly licking her paws nearby and then yawning from her midday meal. The cat’s stomach was heaving up and down, still digesting her prey. The leopard had suffocated the antelope — you could still see the marks on its neck — and then dragged it up the tree, holding it in her jaws, and placed the kill perfectly in the V between two branches. And there the antelope dangled, head on one side, dainty legs on the other, with half her midsection eaten away. The rest would be tomorrow’s leopard lunch, stored high above where the hyenas could not get it.

But while maintaining “No Service” in the wild is essential for Africa’s ecotourism industry, the rest of the continent desperately needs more connectivity. Eric Cantor, who runs Grameen Foundation’s Application Laboratory in Uganda, explains what a huge difference cellphones and Internet access can make to people in Africa:

“A banana farmer previously limited to waiting for a buyer truck to pass his farm to sell the week’s harvest can now use a mobile-phone marketplace to publicize the availability of his stock or to search for buyers who might be in the market or have truck transport available to a larger market,” said Cantor. “They can also compare going prices to gain more power in a negotiation. Teenagers too shy to ask parents about causes and symptoms of sexually transmitted diseases can research them privately and improve their own health outcomes. A farmer with no money who needs a remedy for the pest attacking her primary crop can find one that uses locally available materials, when they need it.”

Botswana, about the size of Texas, luckily has enough diamonds to be able to turn 40 percent of its land into nature preserves. Its urban connectivity with the global diamond exchanges enables it to maintain “No Service” in its wilderness. Zimbabwe, by contrast, has become virtually a country of “No Service” after decades of dictatorship by Robert Mugabe, and, as a result, both its people and wildlife are endangered species.

The more African countries where “No Service” can be a choice, not a fate — an offering for the eco-tourist to enjoy, not a condition for the entrepreneur to overcome — the more hope that this continent will be able to enhance its natural wonders and its people at the same time.

Next we get to Mr. Egan:

This week marks the return of “Mad Men,” the television drama that serves as anthropological time travel to a world where doctors smoke, sexual harassment is a hoot, and it is never too early for an office drink because it’s always noon somewhere.

But as much fun as it is to revel in the cosmetic retro fascination of the era — ooh, bullet bras, up-do hairdos, and finger-snapping hepcats down in the Village — the series about a Madison Avenue ad agency in the early 1960s works best as a startling reminder of just how distant the near past really is.

Americans may be heavier, with a diminished attention span, even less classy than the troubled souls of the Men in the Gray Flannel Suit costume drama. But clearly, we’re better off in most regards.

Consider the show’s treatment of three themes: personal health, attitudes toward race, and sexual equality.

My parents and their friends were nicotine fiends, the women smoking even during late pregnancy. The high point of tobacco addiction was around 1964, when 42 percent of adults smoked. Today, the figure is less than 20 percent — a modern low.

I remember rattling around inside a station wagon filled with secondhand smoke. No seat belts, of course. And after the ride, we 6-year-olds reeked of Lucky Strikes.

Now, smokers are such pariahs that the actors on the set of “Mad Men” can’t even puff real cigarettes; they have to use herbal ones, or run afoul of the law.

If a driver of that station wagon had a drink or two before getting behind the wheel, so what? Drunken driving was a respected social skill. Last year, 11,773 Americans died in accidents involving drunken driving — tragically high, but down by more than 50 percent from a generation ago.

Roger Sterling, the silver-haired sybarite in the “Mad Men” ad agency, suffered a major heart attack, telegraphed from his first three-martini lunch. Today, coronary heart disease is still the leading cause of mortality in the United States, but the death rate from heart attacks is down 72 percent since 1960.

The brooding, unfathomable ad man at the center of the show, Don Draper, has high blood pressure. When his doctor asks how much he’s boozing, he admits, after some hesitation, to five drinks a day. He also has sexual problems, unable to match the passion of his stunning wife, a Grace Kelly look-alike who is a shrink session away from going full Betty Friedan.

Another mad man has an African-American lover. When a child sees the girlfriend in a picture frame on his desk, she asks, “Is that your maid?”

It was not an unreasonable assumption. Interracial marriage was illegal in more than a dozen states until 1967, and constituted less than 2 percent of all sanctioned unions in that decade. Now the number is close to 7 percent. And the child of one such marriage is president of the United States.

Women are portrayed as both ferocious felines and passive hens in the show. Peggy Olson, the secretary allowed into the writers pool, is smarter than most of her colleagues, but is still treated like office furniture — a situation that matches my mother’s memories of writing ad copy with the Brylcreemed boys.

“When God closes a door,” Sterling says at one point, “he opens a dress.” The more meditative Draper asks Sterling, in a Freudian ad moment, “What do women want?”

“Who cares?” he replies.

In the office 2009, he would have to care, or risk offending his boss. Women account for 51 percent of all workers in high-paying management, professional or related occupations, the federal government reported in its latest labor force portrait. They outnumber men as writers and public relations managers.

For gays, it’s been a similar sea change. A closeted homosexual art director, Salvatore Romano, can only sigh and speak in artsy code with the writer he pines for on the show. Gay marriage, which has been legalized in six states, would not even have made a source of homophobic office jokes in 1962, it was so far-fetched.

Is all of this progress, a march toward a more tolerant, equitable, less socially inauthentic society? Sure. Plus, Don Draper would have Lipitor for his heart and Viagra for his sexual troubles. The interracial couple would hardly draw a stare in most states. Romano would be part of an old married gay couple. Peggy would run the place. But Roger Sterling, beyond redemption, would be dead.

Still, some things are clearly missed from those days, when life was perhaps better in the margins. Breakfast without a BlackBerry next to the blueberries, for one. No rush to tweet or post every idle thought, for another. And that soundtrack … fly me to the moon.

Well, except that “Fly Me To the Moon” was written in 1954 and most of what people think of as “the 60s” started in about 1966, the Summer of Love…  Here’s Mr. Rich:

In our 24/7 mediasphere, this weekend’s misty Woodstock commemorations must share the screen with Americans screaming bloody murder at town hall meetings. It’s a vivid reminder that what most endures from America, 1969, is not the peace-and-love flower-power bacchanal of Woodstock legend but a certain style of political rage. The angry white folk shouting down their congressmen might be — literally in some cases — those angry white students whose protests disrupted campuses before and after the Woodstock interlude of summer vacation ’69.

The most historically resonant television event this weekend, however, may be none of the above. Sunday night is the premiere of the third season of “Mad Men,” the AMC series about a fictional Madison Avenue ad agency in the early 1960s. The first episode is to be simulcast in Times Square after a costume party where fans can parade their retro wardrobes. This promotional event is Woodstock, corporate style, with martinis instead of marijuana, Sinatra instead of Shankar and narrow ties supplanting the tie-dyed.

Woodstock’s 40th anniversary is being celebrated as well — with new books, a new documentary, a new Ang Lee movie and the inevitable remastered DVDs and CDs. But it’s “Mad Men” that has the pulse of our moment. Though the show unfolds in an earlier America than Woodstock, it seems of far more recent vintage, for better and for worse.

As many boomers have noted, Woodstock’s nirvana was a one-of-a-kind, one-weekend wonder anyway, not the utopia of subsequent myth. It wasn’t even meant to be free; in the chaos, the crowds overwhelmed and overran the ticket sellers. That concept of “free” — known to some adults as “theft” — persists today in the downloading of “free” music, which has decimated the recording industry far more effectively than brown acid ever did.

Even in Woodstock’s immediate aftermath, there was no consensus on its meaning. A Times editorial titled “Nightmare in the Catskills” saw “a nightmare of mud and stagnation” and asked rhetorically, “What kind of culture is it that can produce so colossal a mess?” Time magazine, surprisingly, was more sympathetic. “It is an open question,” the writer intoned, “whether some as yet unknown politician could exploit the deep emotions of today’s youth to build a politics of ecstasy.” Actually, both proved wrong. Woodstock was no apocalypse, but neither was it a political turning point. Nixon would be re-elected in 1972, and the only politician with a touch of ecstasy, Robert Kennedy, had already been murdered.

Ten years later, a New Yorker cartoon depicted a Woodstock reunion as a buttoned-down yuppie cocktail party, not a hippie love-in. By then, the ’60s counterculture had been completely commodified. Today a Woodstock couldn’t exist without corporate sponsorship; in fact this weekend’s planned 40th-anniversary concert was canceled for lack of one. Any large-scale youth “community” would be virtual, on Facebook and Twitter, and so might some of the sex. Only pot remains eternal.

That the early ’60s of “Mad Men” seems more contemporary than the late ’60s of Woodstock has little to do with the earlier period’s style or culture in any case (however superior the clothes). The rock giants of Woodstock remain exponentially more popular than Vic Damone and Perry Como, the forgotten crooners heard in “Mad Men.” The repressive racial and sexual order of Sterling Cooper, the show’s fictional ad agency, is also a relic, in part because of the revolutions that accelerated in the Woodstock era. The misogyny, racism and homophobia practiced in the executive suites of “Mad Men” are hardly extinct — and neither are the cigarettes that most of the characters chain-smoke — but they are in various stages of remission.

What makes the show powerful is not nostalgia for an America that few want to bring back — where women were most valued as sex objects or subservient housewives, where blacks were, at best, second-class citizens, and where the hedonistic guzzling of gas and gin went unquestioned. Rather, it’s our identification with an America that, for all its serious differences with our own, shares our growing anxiety about the prospect of cataclysmic change. “Mad Men” is about the dawn of a new era, and we, too, are at such a dawn. And we are uncertain and worried about what comes next.

In his new book “1959: The Year Everything Changed,” Fred Kaplan writes about the forces that were roiling America in the year before “Mad Men” begins. It was in 1959 that Berry Gordy founded Motown, that G. D. Searle applied to the F.D.A. for approval of the birth-control pill, and that Texas Instruments announced the advent of the microchip. The year began with a Soviet technological triumph, the launching of the spacecraft Lunik I, and ended with an embarrassing capitalist fiasco, Ford Motor’s yanking of the ignominious Edsel. Along the way the first two American soldiers were killed in South Vietnam. “By the end of 1959,” Kaplan writes, “all the elements were in place for the upheavals of the subsequent decades.”

The first season of “Mad Men” was set in 1960. This season — and there will be no spoilers here — opens in 1963. That’s the year of Beatlemania’s first sightings, of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s march on Washington and, of course, of gunfire in Dallas. Bruce Handy sums it up in the current Vanity Fair: “As in Hitchcock, the characters are unaware of shocks that the audience knows all too well lie ahead, whether they be the Kennedy assassination and women’s lib or long sideburns and the lasting influence of Doyle Dane Bernbach’s witty, self-deprecating ‘lemon’ ad for Volkswagen.”

What we don’t know is how the characters will be rocked by these changes. But we’re reasonably certain it won’t be pretty. That’s where the drama is, and it’s tense.

In the world of television, “Mad Men” is notorious for drawing great press and modest audiences. This could be the season when the viewers catch up, in part because the show is catching up to the level of anxiety we feel in 2009. In the first two seasons, the series was promoted with the slogan “Where the Truth Lies.” This year, it’s “The World’s Gone Mad.” The ad hyping the season premiere depicts the impeccably dressed Don Draper, the agency executive played by Jon Hamm, sitting in his office calmly smoking a Lucky Strike as floodwater rises to his waist.

To be underwater — well, many Americans know what that’s like right now. But we are also at that 1963-like pivot point of our history, with a new young president unlike any we’ve seen before, and with the promise of a new frontier whose boundaries are a mystery. Something is happening here, as Bob Dylan framed this mood the last time around, but you don’t know what it is. We feel Don Draper’s disorientation as his once rock-solid ’50s America starts to be swept away. We recognize his fear that the world could go mad.

It’s through this prism we might re-examine the raucous town hall eruptions this month. Even if they are inflated by activist organizations and cable-TV overexposure, they still cannot be dismissed entirely as made-for-media phenomena made-to-measure to fill the August news vacuum. Nor are they necessarily about health care. The twisted distortions about “death panels” and federal conspiracies “to pull the plug on grandma” are just too unhinged from the reality of any actual legislation. These bogus fears are psychological proxies for bigger traumas.

“It’s the economy, the facts that millions of people have lost their jobs and millions of others are afraid of losing theirs,” theorizes one heckled senator, Arlen Specter. That’s surely part of it. So is fear of more home foreclosures and credit card bankruptcies. So is fear of China, whose economic ascension stands in stark contrast to the collapse of traditional American industries from automobiles to newspapers. So is fear of Barack Obama, whose political ascension dramatizes the coming demographic order that will relegate whites to the American minority. In our uncharted new frontier, even the most reliable fixture for a half-century of American public life, the Kennedy family, is crumbling.

These anxieties coalesce in various permutations right, left and center. In most cases they don’t surface in the explosions we’re seeing at these town hall meetings but in the kind of quiet desperation that afflicts Don Draper and his cohort in “Mad Men.” But this summer’s explosions are also in keeping with 1963.

The political rage at the young, liberal Kennedy administration in some quarters that year was rabid and ominous. When Adlai Stevenson, then ambassador to the United Nations, spoke in Dallas that October, jeering zealots spat on him and struck him with a picketer’s placard. Stevenson advised Kennedy against traveling there. Dallas rushed to draft a new city ordinance restricting protesters’ movements at lawful assemblies and passed it on Nov. 18. We need not watch “Mad Men” to learn how that turned out.

Oh, to be back in the idyllic summer of 1969, when the biggest sin committed by the rebellious mobs at Woodstock was getting stoned. Something else is happening here in our anxious summer of 2009, when instead of flower-power and free love there are reports of death threats and fanatics packing guns.

Dowd, Egan, Kristof and Rich

July 12, 2009

MoDo has created another one of her tiresome little fiction pieces.  They become more and more cringe-worthy as time goes on.  This one is called “Sweet, Tweet Revenge,” and purports to be a remarkable exchange between John McCain and Sarah Palin, the erstwhile mavericky twins, in bites of 140 characters or less.  It’s horrendous.  Mr. Egan, in “Michelle’s Next Mission,” says fewer people are visiting our national parks, but the first lady might have the star power to reverse the trend.  Mr. Kristof writes about “Clean, Sexy Water,” and says a charity group to provide clean water has been stunningly successful, thanks to the marketing talents of its founder, a former nightclub promoter.  Mr. Rich says “She Broke the G.O.P. and Now She Owns It,” and that as the Republicans’ lone charismatic performer, Sarah Palin has come to represent a dwindling white nonurban America that is aflame with grievances.  Here, God help us, is MoDo:

It was only a matter of time, once John McCain joined the 21st century and got himself a Ford Fusion Hybrid, a Facebook page and a Twitter account, that he would reconnect with people out of his past he would rather forget.

But some people, including the conservative posing on the cover of this week’s Time wearing purple toenail polish, are unforgettable.

And so comes this remarkable exchange of tweets between the erstwhile mavericky twins.

PALIN: @SenJohnMcCain — How the heck are ya, ya big hero?? Long time no hear, pardner. Y did u defriend me on Facebook?

MCCAIN: @AKGovSarahPalin — I needed room for Kissinger.

PALIN: @SenJohnMcCain — Funny! Up here slaying salmon & assisting orphaned moose calves w/ Todd & kids @ Bristol Bay. Need SUPERHUGE favr!!?? 😉

MCCAIN: @AKGovSarahPalin — Another one?

PALIN: @SenJohnMcCain — LOL! My publisher, Harpercollins, wants u 2 blurb my book. It wld b rockin’! u + me + hot pix of me = $$$!

MCCAIN: @AKGovSarahPalin — Busy watchdogging Obama, who’s acting naïve with kgb russians and spending like drunkn sailr. Apologies, drunkn sailrs.

PALIN: @SenJohnMcCain — Obama is so uneconomic.

MCCAIN: @AKGovSarahPalin — Warren Buffett says Wall St ripping off govt on stimulus. He says 1st stimulus bill like eating half-tab Viagra & candy.

PALIN: @SenJohnMcCain — First Dude doesn’t need Viagra!!! So, anyhoo, the blurb?

MCCAIN: @AKGovSarahPalin — Hanging with Joe & Lindsey. Was on CSPAN’s Wash Journal, in case you missed it go to my website to watch video.

PALIN: @SenJohnMcCain — Like I have time to watch CSPAN when I’m all over NBC, ABC, CNN, and FOX, u goose!! And my cool Time “Renegade” cover!!!

MCCAIN: @AKGovSarahPalin — Very busy tracking China unrest, Honduras coup, thugs running Burma, protests in Iran. Obama weak-kneed on Iran.

PALIN: @SenJohnMcCain — Whatev. But seriously, I’m riding a really big story up in AK, in case you hadn’t noticed. Me and Jacko rule the news!

MCCAIN: @AKGovSarahPalin — That’s exactly what’s wrong with my former base, the media.

PALIN: @SenJohnMcCain — No need 2 get snippy. Life with u wasn’t so awesome. Vanity Fair says ur BFFs called me “Little Shop of Horrors.”

MCCAIN: @AKGovSarahPalin — I see u still can’t control Levi, who says u quit 2 cash in on the book and TV offers. On Fox, you’d b just another fox.

PALIN: @SenJohnMcCain — Just progressing my bank account. Couldn’t marry rich like some lucky cusses we know.

MCCAIN: @AKGovSarahPalin — Leave Cindy out of this and I won’t tell you how I really felt about antics of “The Real World: Wasilla.”

PALIN: @SenJohnMcCain — I should’ve quit ur campaign when ur team was undermining me, just like Obama WH is doing 2 me now on ethics complaints.

MCCAIN: @AKGovSarahPalin — That’s ridic. You’re more paranoid than Hillary. Quitting isn’t noble. That’s why I’m still fighting nasty earmarks.

PALIN: @SenJohnMcCain — And I hear ur losing on those, old timer. Maybe u should think about quitting. 😦

MCCAIN: @AKGovSarahPalin — Hey, Daffy. I’m running for reelection next yr. Some of us know u have 2 b in govt to “effect change” in govt.

PALIN: @SenJohnMcCain — That’s the old-fashnd thinking that got ur butt kicked. I did all I could 2 get u crowds & drag u across the finish line.

MCCAIN: @AKGovSarahPalin — Peggy Noonan’s right. U r “the most careless sower of discord since George W. Bush” Http://tinyurl.com/ll833p

PALIN: @SenJohnMcCain — I can’t stand her or your pal Mike Murphy, who says my only accomplishment is my “smirking enemies” in media elite.

MCCAIN: @AKGovSarahPalin — U can’t hate the media and b so obsessed with it at the same time.

PALIN: @SenJohnMcCain — The media can too be my frenemy.

MCCAIN: @AKGovSarahPalin — Ur sounding a little cockamamie.

PALIN: @SenJohnMcCain — “Most newspapermen by definition have to be liberal; if they’re not … they can hardly be good newspapermen” W. Cronkite.

MCCAIN: @AKGovSarahPalin — U might want to make up with Letterman. I did. He’s not a bad guy.

PALIN: @SenJohnMcCain — Y in heaven’s name wld I follow ur example? I’m the pt guard fast breaking for an easy lay up. How bout that blurb, Pops?

MCCAIN: @AKGovSarahPalin — OK, here’s ur blurb: “The Keating Five was nothing compared to the Alaska One. America, I’m sorry.”

Here’s Mr. Egan:

You would not know, just as egg-yoke-colored glacier lilies are pushing through ground newly unburdened of its snow, that there is so much trouble around these lands that form America’s Best Idea.

You could not fathom, among the babble of languages bouncing off granite walls in Yosemite, that these places may one day be unloved.

Our shared outdoor spaces, our attics of history and graveyards of sacrifice — from Devils Tower to Death Valley, from Martin Luther King Jr.’s birth home to the Pennsylvania ground where Flight 93 crashed on 9/11 — are being overlooked. The physical embodiments of the American story are being ignored by too many.

Last year, there were 274 million visits to all areas run by the National Park Service. These places still draw more people than Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Basketball Association and Nascar combined. This is a crisis?

Well, yes. The problem is that 10 years ago, the parks attracted about 12 million more visitors than they do today. Attendance has been in gradual decline for more than a decade.

And, worse, visitors all look sort of the same: generally white, fairly prosperous, sensible-shoe-wearing adults.

This is where Ken Burns is supposed to come to the rescue. The film that he and the writer Dayton Duncan have produced — “The National Parks, America’s Best Idea” — which is scheduled to be shown over six nights on PBS in the fall, is stunning and restorative, like the parks themselves. There will most likely be a Ken Burns Effect — just as there was after his films on the Civil War and baseball. But it will not be enough.

For that, we need something else. A superstar. A style-shaper. A person who could get whiny city kids not only to eat their vegetables, but to grow them.

We need Michelle Obama to save the national parks.

She was blunt, while looking ever so stylish, in leading a renaissance for kitchen gardens. “It’s plain and simple,” said the first lady, in explaining how one-third of American children came to be overweight or obese. “They’re not eating right, and they’re not moving their bodies at all.”

A Nature Conservancy report a few years ago linked the decline in children’s interest in the outdoors to their being under “virtual house arrest” to electronic media, spending 6.5 hours a day face-planted in Facebook, Xbox, television, a text-tablet or some other device.

It’s not that this generation of young people is different from previous ones. Human beings need nature to live full lives — always have, always will. Thus, when rangers at Rainier started an experiment this summer to bring families from Seattle’s poorest neighborhoods on their first-time camping excursions in the park, “we had far more people who wanted to try it than we were able to accommodate,” said Kevin Bacher, a park ranger.

The idea that every citizen holds title to these lands, the Burns film notes, is “as uniquely American as the Declaration of Independence, and just as radical.”

Black soldiers in Yosemite and Yellowstone were among the first park rangers. During the Great Depression, Franklin Roosevelt put the urban unemployed, people who had never slept under the stars, to work in places like Glacier Park and Death Valley. They left lasting improvements in the parks, while the land had a similar effect on the workers.

Ten years ago, President Bill Clinton’s African-American park superintendent, Robert Stanton, introduced a plan to make the uniformed work force look more like America and to reach out to urban areas.

But it was not enough. The parks need Obama-era branding. So, the first family should go ahead and spend that week at Martha’s Vineyard in August, playing scrabble with Hillary and Bill, clamming with Spike Lee. But it would not take much for Michelle and her brood to visit the people’s land.

Maybe an overnight in Acadia, the first national park east of the Mississippi. Or a trip to the California home of Eugene O’Neill, America’s only Nobel Prize-winning playwright. Alas, the O’Neill national historic site had a mere 2,440 visitors last year — a lonely home for the creation of “A Moon for the Misbegotten.”

Or how about a stopover at Gettysburg’s new visitor center, where one of the first things that now greets a visitor is an image of slaves. “People used to tour the battlefield and come away still wondering what we were fighting about,” said Alan Spears of the National Parks Conservation Association.

From that graveyard to the glaciers of Rainier, this land, this history, is a shared birthright. But we are absentee owners, at best, if we don’t create a new generation of stewardship.

Here’s Mr. Kristof:

People always ask: What can I do to make a difference?

So many people in poor countries desperately need assistance. So many people in rich countries would like to help but fear their donations would line the pocket of a corrupt official or be lost in an aid bureaucracy. The result is a short circuit, leaving both sides unfulfilled.

That’s where Scott Harrison comes in.

Five years ago, Mr. Harrison was a nightclub promoter in Manhattan who spent his nights surrounded by friends in a blur of alcohol, cocaine and marijuana. He lived in a luxurious apartment and drove a BMW — but then on a vacation in South America he underwent a spiritual crisis.

“I realized I was the most selfish, sycophantic and miserable human being,” he recalled. “I was the worst person I knew.”

Mr. Harrison, now 33, found an aid organization that would accept him as a volunteer photographer — if he paid $500 a month to cover expenses. And so he did. The organization was Mercy Ships, a Christian aid group that performs surgeries in poor countries with volunteer doctors.

“The first person I photographed was a 14-year-old boy named Alfred, choking on a four-pound benign tumor in his mouth, filling up his whole mouth,” Mr. Harrison recalled. “He was suffocating on his own face. I just went into the corner and sobbed.”

A few weeks later, Mr. Harrison took Alfred — with the tumor now removed — back to his village in the West African country of Benin. “I saw everybody celebrating, because a few doctors had given up their vacation time,” he said.

Mercy Ships transformed Mr. Harrison as much as it did Alfred. Mr. Harrison returned to New York two years later with a plan: he would form a charity to provide clean water to save lives in poor countries. But by then, he was broke and sleeping on a friend’s couch.

Armed with nothing but a natural gift for promotion, and for wheedling donations from people, Mr. Harrison started his group, called charity: water — and it has been stunningly successful. In three years, he says, his group has raised $10 million (most of that last year alone) from 50,000 individual donors, providing clean water to nearly one million people in Africa and Asia.

The organization now has 11 full-time employees, almost twice as many unpaid interns, and more than half a million followers on Twitter (the United Nations has 3,000). New York City buses were plastered with free banners promoting his message, and Saks Fifth Avenue gave up its store windows to spread Mr. Harrison’s gospel about the need for clean water in Africa. American schools are signing up to raise money to build wells for schools in poor countries.

“Scott is an important marketing machine, lifting one of the most critical issues of our time in a way that is sexy and incredibly compelling — that’s his gift,” said Jacqueline Novogratz, head of the Acumen Fund, which invests in poor countries to overcome poverty.

Mr. Harrison doesn’t actually do the tough aid work in the field. He partners with humanitarian organizations and pays them to dig wells. In effect, he’s a fund-raiser and marketer — but that’s often the most difficult piece of the aid puzzle.

So what’s his secret? Mr. Harrison’s success seems to depend on three precepts:

First, ensure that every penny from new donors will go to projects in the field. He accomplishes this by cajoling his 500 most committed donors to cover all administrative costs.

Second, show donors the specific impact of their contributions. Mr. Harrison grants naming rights to wells. He posts photos and G.P.S. coordinates so donors can look up their wells on Google Earth. And in September, Mr. Harrison is going to roll out a new Web site that will match even the smallest donation to a particular project that can be tracked online.

Third, leap into new media and social networks. This spring, charity: water raised $250,000 through a “Twestival” — a series of meetings among followers on Twitter. Last year, it raised $965,000 by asking people with September birthdays to forgo presents and instead solicit cash to build wells in Ethiopia. The campaign went viral on the Web, partly because Mr. Harrison invests in clever, often sassy videos.

One popular video shows well-heeled Manhattanites stepping out of their luxury buildings and lining up to fill jerrycans with dirty water from a lake in Central Park. We watch a mother offer the murky water to her small children — and the upbeat message is: you can help ensure that other people don’t have do that, either.

Mr. Harrison’s underlying idea is that giving should be joyous, an infectious pleasure at the capacity to bring about change.

“Guilt has never been part of it,” he said. “It’s excitement instead, presenting people with an opportunity — ‘you have an amazing chance to build a well!’ ”

And now here’s Mr. Rich:

Sarah Palin and Al Sharpton don’t ordinarily have much in common, but they achieved a rare harmonic convergence at Michael Jackson’s memorial service. When Sharpton told the singer’s children it was their daddy’s adversaries, not their daddy, who were “strange,” he was channeling the pugnacious argument the Alaska governor had made the week before. There was nothing strange about her decision to quit in midterm, Palin told America. What’s strange — or “insane,” in her lingo — are the critics who dare question her erratic behavior on the national stage.

Sharpton’s bashing of Jackson’s naysayers received the biggest ovation of the entire show. Palin’s combative resignation soliloquy, though much mocked by prognosticators of all political persuasions, has an equally vociferous and more powerful constituency. In the aftermath of her decision to drop out and cash in, Palin’s standing in the G.O.P. actually rose in the USA Today/Gallup poll. No less than 71 percent of Republicans said they would vote for her for president. That overwhelming majority isn’t just the “base” of the Republican Party that liberals and conservatives alike tend to ghettoize as a rump backwater minority. It is the party, or pretty much what remains of it in the Barack Obama era.

That’s why Palin won’t go gently into the good night, much as some Republicans in Washington might wish. She is not just the party’s biggest star and most charismatic television performer; she is its only star and charismatic performer. Most important, she stands for a genuine movement: a dwindling white nonurban America that is aflame with grievances and awash in self-pity as the country hurtles into the 21st century and leaves it behind. Palin gives this movement a major party brand and political plausibility that its open-throated media auxiliary, exemplified by Glenn Beck, cannot. She loves the spotlight, can raise millions of dollars and has no discernible reason to go fishing now except for self-promotional photo ops.

The essence of Palinism is emotional, not ideological. Yes, she is of the religious right, even if she winks literally and figuratively at her own daughter’s flagrant disregard of abstinence and marriage. But family-values politics, now more devalued than the dollar by the philandering of ostentatiously Christian Republican politicians, can only take her so far. The real wave she’s riding is a loud, resonant surge of resentment and victimization that’s larger than issues like abortion and gay civil rights.

That resentment is in part about race, of course. When Palin referred to Alaska as “a microcosm of America” during the 2008 campaign, it was in defiance of the statistical reality that her state’s tiny black and Hispanic populations are unrepresentative of her nation. She stood for the “real America,” she insisted, and the identity of the unreal America didn’t have to be stated explicitly for audiences to catch her drift. Her convention speech’s signature line was a deftly coded putdown of her presumably shiftless big-city opponent: “I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a community organizer, except that you have actual responsibilities.” (Funny how this wisdom has been forgotten by her supporters now that she has abandoned her own actual responsibilities in public office.)

The latest flashpoint for this kind of animus is the near-certain elevation to the Supreme Court of Sonia Sotomayor, whose Senate confirmation hearings arrive this week. Prominent Palinists were fast to demean Sotomayor as a dim-witted affirmative-action baby. Fred Barnes of The Weekly Standard, the Palinist hymnal, labeled Sotomayor “not the smartest” and suggested that Princeton awards academic honors on a curve. Karl Rove said, “I’m not really certain how intellectually strong she would be.” Those maligning the long and accomplished career of an Ivy League-educated judge do believe in affirmative-action — but only for white people like Palin, whom they boosted for vice president despite her minimal achievements and knowledge of policy, the written word or even geography.

The politics of resentment are impervious to facts. Palinists regard their star as an icon of working-class America even though the Palins’ combined reported income ($211,000) puts them in the top 3.6 percent of American households. They see her as a champion of conservative fiscal principles even though she said yes to the Bridge to Nowhere and presided over a state that ranks No.1 in federal pork.

Nowhere is the power of resentment to trump reason more flagrantly illustrated than in the incessant complaint by Palin and her troops that she is victimized by a double standard in the “mainstream media.” In truth, the commentators at ABC, NBC and CNN — often the same ones who judged Michelle Obama a drag on her husband — all tried to outdo each other in praise for Palin when she emerged at the Republican convention 10 months ago. Even now, the so-called mainstream media can grade Palin on a curve: at MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” last week, Palin’s self-proclaimed representation of the “real America” was accepted as a given, as if white rural America actually still was the nation’s baseline.

The Palinists’ bogus beefs about double standards reached farcical proportions at Fox News on the sleepy pre-Fourth Friday afternoon when word of her abdication hit the East. The fill-in anchor demanded that his token Democratic stooge name another female politician who had suffered such “disgraceful attacks” as Palin. When the obvious answer arrived — Hillary Clinton — the Fox host angrily protested that Clinton had never been attacked in “a sexual way” or “about her children.”

Americans have short memories, but it’s hardly ancient history that conservative magazines portrayed Hillary Clinton as both a dominatrix cracking a whip and a broomstick-riding witch. Or that Rush Limbaugh held up a picture of Chelsea Clinton on television to identify the “White House dog.” Or that Palin’s running mate, John McCain, told a sexual joke linking Hillary and Chelsea and Janet Reno. Yet the same conservative commentariat that vilified both Clintons 24/7 now whines that Palin is receiving “the kind of mauling” that the media “always reserve for conservative Republicans.” So said The Wall Street Journal editorial page last week. You’d never guess that The Journal had published six innuendo-laden books on real and imagined Clinton scandals, or that the Clintons had been a leading target of both Letterman and Leno monologues, not to mention many liberal editorial pages (including that of The Times), for much of a decade.

Those Republicans who have not drunk the Palin Kool-Aid are apocalyptic for good reason. She could well be their last presidential candidate standing. Such would-be competitors as Mark Sanford, John Ensign and Newt Gingrich are too carnally compromised for the un-Clinton party. Mike Huckabee is Palin-lite. Tim Pawlenty, Bobby Jindal — really? That leaves the charisma-challenged Mitt Romney, precisely the kind of card-carrying Ivy League elitist Palinists loathe, no matter how hard he tries to cosmetically alter his history as a socially liberal fat-cat banker. Palin would crush him like a bug. She has the Teflon-coated stature among Republicans that Romney can only fantasize about.

Were Palin actually to secure the 2012 nomination, the result would be a fiasco for the G.O.P. akin to Goldwater 1964, as the most relentless conservative Palin critic, David Frum, has predicted. Or would it? No one thought Richard Nixon — a far less personable commodity than Palin — would come back either after his sour-grapes “last press conference” of 1962. But Democratic divisions and failures gave him his opportunity in 1968. With unemployment approaching 10 percent and a seemingly bottomless war in Afghanistan, you never know, as Palin likes to say, what doors might open.

It’s more likely that she will never get anywhere near the White House, and not just because of her own limitations. The Palinist “real America” is demographically doomed to keep shrinking. But the emotion it represents is disproportionately powerful for its numbers. It’s an anger that Palin enjoyed stoking during her “palling around with terrorists” crusade against Obama on the campaign trail. It’s an anger that’s curdled into self-martyrdom since Inauguration Day.

Its voice can be found in the postings at a Web site maintained by the fans of Mark Levin, the Obama hater who is, at this writing, the No.2 best-selling hardcover nonfiction writer in America. (Glenn Beck is No.1 in paperback nonfiction.) Politico surveyed them last week. “Bottomline, do you know of any way we can remove these idiots before this country goes down the crapper?” wrote one Levin fan. “I WILL HELP!!! Should I buy a gun?” Another called for a new American revolution, promising “there will be blood.”

These are the cries of a constituency that feels disenfranchised — by the powerful and the well-educated who gamed the housing bubble, by a news media it keeps being told is hateful, by the immigrants who have taken some of their jobs, by the African-American who has ended a white monopoly on the White House. Palin is their born avatar. She puts a happy, sexy face on ugly emotions, and she can solidify her followers’ hold on a G.O.P. that has no leaders with the guts or alternative vision to stand up to them or to her.

For a week now, critics in both parties have had a blast railing at Palin. It’s good sport. But just as the media muttering about those unseemly “controversies” rallied the fans of the King of Pop, so are Palin’s political obituaries likely to jump-start her lucrative afterlife.

Friedman, Kristof, Egan and Rich

December 28, 2008

Mr. Friedman, in “Win, Win, Win, Win, Win…” says we have got to stop “taking off the table” the gasoline tax, the tool that would add leverage to everything we want to do at home and abroad.  Mr. Kristof thinks there may be “A New Chance for Darfur.”  He says Sudan fears the Obama administration, and now for the first time in years, there’s a real chance of ousting President Omar Hassan al-Bashir and ending his murderous regime.  Mr. Egan, in “The Pre-Blame Game,” says as President Bush fogs up history’s rearview mirror, Barack Obama does have a clean slate. He deserves none of the pre-emptive blame his critics are trying to assign to him.  Lastly Mr. Rich, in “You’re Likeable Enough, Gay People,” addresses the fact that Barack Obama’s disingenuous defense of his tone-deaf invitation to the Rev. Rick Warren is an asterisk to the joyous inaugural of our first black president.  Here’s Mr. Friedman:

How many times do we have to see this play before we admit that it always ends the same way?

Which play? The one where gasoline prices go up, pressure rises for more fuel-efficient cars, then gasoline prices fall and the pressure for low-mileage vehicles vanishes, consumers stop buying those cars, the oil producers celebrate, we remain addicted to oil and prices gradually go up again, petro-dictators get rich, we lose. I’ve already seen this play three times in my life. Trust me: It always ends the same way — badly.

So I could only cringe when reading this article from CNNMoney.com on Dec. 22: “After nearly a year of flagging sales, low gas prices and fat incentives are reigniting America’s taste for big vehicles. Trucks and S.U.V.’s will outsell cars in December … something that hasn’t happened since February. Meanwhile, the forecast finds that sales of hybrid vehicles are expected to be way down.”

Have a nice day. It’s morning again — in Saudi Arabia.

Of course, it’s a blessing that people who have been hammered by the economy are getting a break at the pump. But for our long-term health, getting re-addicted to oil and gas guzzlers is one of the dumbest things we could do.

That is why I believe the second biggest decision Barack Obama has to make — the first is deciding the size of the stimulus — is whether to increase the federal gasoline tax or impose an economy-wide carbon tax. Best I can tell, the Obama team has no intention of doing either at this time. I understand why. Raising taxes in a recession is a no-no. But I’ve wracked my brain trying to think of ways to retool America around clean-power technologies without a price signal — i.e., a tax — and there are no effective ones. (Toughening energy-effiency regulations alone won’t do it.) Without a higher gas tax or carbon tax, Obama will lack the leverage to drive critical pieces of his foreign and domestic agendas.

How so? According to AAA, U.S. gasoline prices now average about $1.67 a gallon. Funny, that’s almost exactly what gas cost on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. In the wake of 9/11, President Bush had the political space to impose a gasoline tax, a “Patriot Tax,” to weaken the very people who had funded 9/11 and to stimulate a U.S. renewable-energy industry. But Bush wimped out and would not impose a tax when prices were low or a floor price when they got high.

Today’s financial crisis is Obama’s 9/11. The public is ready to be mobilized. Obama is coming in with enormous popularity. This is his best window of opportunity to impose a gas tax. And he could make it painless: offset the gas tax by lowering payroll taxes, or phase it in over two years at 10 cents a month. But if Obama, like Bush, wills the ends and not the means — wills a green economy without the price signals needed to change consumer behavior and drive innovation — he will fail.

The two most important rules about energy innovation are: 1) Price matters — when prices go up people change their habits. 2) You need a systemic approach. It makes no sense for Congress to pump $13.4 billion into bailing out Detroit — and demand that the auto companies use this cash to make more fuel-efficient cars — and then do nothing to shape consumer behavior with a gas tax so more Americans will want to buy those cars. As long as gas is cheap, people will go out and buy used S.U.V.’s and Hummers.

There has to be a system that permanently changes consumer demand, which would permanently change what Detroit makes, which would attract more investment in battery technology to make electric cars, which would hugely help the expansion of the wind and solar industries — where the biggest drawback is the lack of batteries to store electrons when the wind isn’t blowing or the sun isn’t shining. A higher gas tax would drive all these systemic benefits.

The same is true in geopolitics. A gas tax reduces gasoline demand and keeps dollars in America, dries up funding for terrorists and reduces the clout of Iran and Russia at a time when Obama will be looking for greater leverage against petro-dictatorships. It reduces our current account deficit, which strengthens the dollar. It reduces U.S. carbon emissions driving climate change, which means more global respect for America. And it increases the incentives for U.S. innovation on clean cars and clean-tech.

Which one of these things wouldn’t we want? A gasoline tax “is not just win-win; it’s win, win, win, win, win,” says the Johns Hopkins author and foreign policy specialist Michael Mandelbaum. “A gasoline tax would do more for American prosperity and strength than any other measure Obama could propose.”

I know it’s hard, but we have got to stop “taking off the table” the tool that would add leverage to everything we want to do at home and abroad. We’ve done that for three decades, and we know with absolute certainty how the play ends — with an America that is less innovative, less wealthy, less respected and less powerful.

Here’s Mr. Kristof:

If Barack Obama wants to help end the genocide in Darfur, he doesn’t have to look far for ideas of how to accomplish that. President Bush and his top aides have been given, and ignored, a menu of options for tough steps to squeeze Sudan — even destroy its air force — and those will soon be on the new president’s desk.

The State Department’s policy planning staff prepared the first set of possible responses back in 2004 (never pursued), and this year Ambassador Richard Williamson has privately pushed the White House to squeeze Sudan until it stops the killing.

Mr. Williamson, who is President Bush’s special envoy to Sudan, wrote a tough memo to Mr. Bush this fall outlining three particular steps the United States could take to press Sudan’s leader, President Omar Hassan al-Bashir:

The United States could jam all communications in Khartoum, the Sudanese capital. This would include all telephone calls, all cellular service, all Internet access. After two days, having demonstrated Sudan’s vulnerability, the United States could halt the jamming.

The United States could apply progressive pressure to Port Sudan, from which Sudan exports oil and thus earns revenue. The first step would be to send naval vessels near the port. The next step would be to search or turn back some ships, and the final step would be to impose a quarantine and halt Sudan’s oil exports.

The United States could target Sudanese military aircraft that defy a United Nations ban on offensive military flights in Darfur. The first step would be to destroy a helicopter gunship on the ground at night. A tougher approach would be to warn Sudan that unless it complies with international demands (by handing over suspects indicted by the International Criminal Court, for example), it will lose its air force — and then if it does not comply, to destroy all its military aircraft on the ground.

Officials frustrated by the administration’s passivity shared these possible steps with me, partly to make clear that Mr. Obama can do more if he has the political will.

Mr. Williamson has been one of the unsung heroes of the Bush administration, fighting tenaciously and secretly — even twice threatening to resign — to redeem American honor by confronting genocide. President Bush himself seemed open to tougher action, officials say, but Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Stephen Hadley, the national security adviser, always resisted, backed by the Pentagon. Ms. Rice and Mr. Hadley tarnished their own honor and America’s by advocating, in effect, acquiescence in genocide.

The naysayers’ objection was simple: Those are incredibly serious steps, with grave repercussions.

They’re right. But then again, genocide is pretty serious, too.

That’s something that Mr. Obama and his aides understand. Partly for that reason, Sudan fears the Obama administration, and now for the first time in years, there’s a real chance of ousting President Bashir and ending his murderous regime.

Several factors are coming together. The leaders in Khartoum feel their government wobbling, particularly after rebels clashed with government soldiers on the outskirts of Khartoum earlier this year. They know that the International Criminal Court is expected to issue an arrest warrant for President Bashir, probably in February, but that no other top leader will be indicted after Mr. Bashir.

China, which for years has been President Bashir’s most important international supporter, now seems to be backing away — just as it eventually abandoned genocidal friends like Slobodan Milosevic and the Khmer Rouge. And an Arab state, Qatar, is now leading a serious diplomatic initiative to try to end the slaughter.

Thus there are growing whispers that key figures in the Sudanese regime may throw Mr. Bashir overboard in the coming months. The other leaders are ruthless and have blood on their hands as well, but some of them have in the past proved more willing to negotiate deals than Mr. Bashir has.

Hovering in the background is the risk that the north-south war in Sudan will resume, leading to a slaughter even worse than Darfur. One ominous sign is that Sudan is now stockpiling cash and weapons, apparently so that it can wage war on the south even if Port Sudan is blocked.

Mr. Williamson has suggested providing surface-to-air missiles to the separate government of South Sudan. Such weaponry would reduce the chance that Sudan would attack the south.

If Mr. Obama and his aides can work with Europe, China and Qatar to keep the heat on — and to make clear that Sudan has no choice but to hand over President Bashir once the court issues the arrest warrant — then we just might avert a new war and end the first genocide of the 21st century in the new year.

Now here’s Mr. Egan:

In the icy last days of a year that can’t pass fast enough, the departing president is looking for shelter from the storm of his hubris, while the incoming one is trying to keep that same load from burying him.

Soon enough, the mess will be all Barack Obama’s. But in the holiday interregnum, the winter air is thick with excuses at the White House no-regret fest. The president has given 10 exit interviews, spinning an unnecessary war, the shredding of the Bill of Rights and an epic run of economic negligence as bold action taken with Churchillian fortitude.

No doubt the Weather Channel is waiting in the wings for his revision of Hurricane Katrina.

A little polishing of history is natural for a valedictory. And if President Bush had just gone off to quiet moral smugness at Crawford, where he has spent 485 days during his presidency, we could be done with him. But nooooo!

The ineptitude-by-design that led to war in Iraq? He blamed it on bad intelligence, much of it from “prior to my arrival in Washington.”

The economic meltdown? History will prove that it came from many decisions “that took place over a decade or so, before I arrived.”

With the secondary players, it’s no better. Under Christopher Cox’s tenure at the Securities and Exchange Commission, both the legal thievery behind the collapse of Wall Street and the biggest Ponzi scheme in history went undetected. But Cox will not carry any part of that weight.

Dick Cheney, at least, is willing to defend the delusions that inspired his dark overlordship. Echoing Richard Nixon, he told Fox News that “as a general proposition,” if the president decides to do something in war it’s legal. Nuke the world, for example. He then alluded to Abraham Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus and Franklin Roosevelt’s internment of Japanese-Americans as cover.

Cheney implied that waterboarding is not torture, despite the fact that such practice can be prosecuted as a war crime in most civilized countries. And in a lesson that made many a parent cringe, he said it was O.K. during a righteous hissy fit to tell someone to go, um, stuff themselves.

It doesn’t take much for an honest assertion by this gang to stand out like a clean pig at the trough. Give credit to Andrew Card, the former White House chief of staff, for saying, “Maybe I was asleep at the switch,” as the home loan market burned.

Down the road, Iraq may fall back into the chaos of sectarian violence, and if that happens, Bush will wash his hands of it. That’s the premise of a new book, “Unintended Consequences: How War in Iraq Strengthened America’s Enemies,” by Peter W. Galbraith.

“The pretense that the surge is a success and that therefore the United States is winning the Iraq war,” he writes, “is the opening salvo in a coming blame game as to who lost Iraq.”

On the incoming tide, Obama is trying to keep the last eight years at arm’s length. Two wars, two million lost jobs in 2008, the worst unemployment in 15 years, a budget deficit that could reach a trillion dollars — all of that is an inherited burden, Obama says.

But to hear some Republicans tell it, the bad times are Obama’s fault. On the day after the election, Rush Limbaugh said, “The game has begun.” He meant the blame game, and it took less than 24 hours for him to get started.

“We now have the largest market plunge after an election in history,” he said on Nov. 6. “Thank you, man-child Barack Obama.”

His colleague in intellectual dishonesty, “the deeply unsubtle Sean Hannity,” as The Economist called him, picked up the talking points on the “Obama recession”— his words, more than a month ago.

The new president has a strong wind at his back precisely because the desire for a fresh start is so great. A USA Today/Gallup poll just found that Obama is the first president-elect since Dwight Eisenhower to be picked by Americans as the most admired man in the world. A more fascinating measurement is the number of Republicans who disapprove of Obama’s public performance — it’s dropped by half since the election.

Much of this good will may not last until Groundhog Day. But as 2008 slips away with Bush fogging up history’s rearview mirror, Obama does have a clean slate.

He will make mistakes, plenty of them. He will disappoint, numerous times. He will say one thing, and do another. Expectations are unbearably high.

For just a few more weeks, though, he deserves none of the pre-emptive blame his less reasonable critics are trying to assign to him. The act of becoming was the more enjoyable part of success, Ernest Hemingway once said. Obama, facing a year of peril at all levels, may reach the same conclusion.

Last but not least, here’s Mr. Rich:

In his first press conference after his re-election in 2004, President Bush memorably declared, “I earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it.” We all know how that turned out.

Barack Obama has little in common with George W. Bush, thank God, his obsessive workouts and message control notwithstanding. At a time when very few Americans feel very good about very much, Obama is generating huge hopes even before he takes office. So much so that his name and face, affixed to any product, may be the last commodity left in the marketplace that can still move Americans to shop.

I share these high hopes. But for the first time a faint tinge of Bush crept into my Obama reveries this month.

As we saw during primary season, our president-elect is not free of his own brand of hubris and arrogance, and sometimes it comes before a fall: “You’re likable enough, Hillary” was the prelude to his defeat in New Hampshire. He has hit this same note again by assigning the invocation at his inauguration to the Rev. Rick Warren, the Orange County, Calif., megachurch preacher who has likened committed gay relationships to incest, polygamy and “an older guy marrying a child.” Bestowing this honor on Warren was a conscious — and glib — decision by Obama to spend political capital. It was made with the certitude that a leader with a mandate can do no wrong.

In this case, the capital spent is small change. Most Americans who have an opinion about Warren like him and his best-selling self-help tome, “The Purpose Driven Life.” His good deeds are plentiful on issues like human suffering in Africa, poverty and climate change. He is opposed to same-sex marriage, but so is almost every top-tier national politician, including Obama. Unlike such family-values ayatollahs as James Dobson and Tony Perkins, Warren is not obsessed with homosexuality and abortion. He was vociferously attacked by the Phyllis Schlafly gang when he invited Obama to speak about AIDS at his Saddleback Church two years ago.

There’s no reason why Obama shouldn’t return the favor by inviting him to Washington. But there’s a difference between including Warren among the cacophony of voices weighing in on policy and anointing him as the inaugural’s de facto pope. You can’t blame V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, the first openly gay Episcopal bishop and an early Obama booster, for feeling as if he’d been slapped in the face. “I’m all for Rick Warren being at the table,” he told The Times, but “we’re talking about putting someone up front and center at what will be the most-watched inauguration in history, and asking his blessing on the nation. And the God that he’s praying to is not the God that I know.”

Warren, whose ego is no less than Obama’s, likes to advertise his “commitment to model civility in America.” But as Rachel Maddow of MSNBC reminded her audience, “comparing gay relationships to child abuse” is a “strange model of civility.” Less strange but equally hard to take is Warren’s defensive insistence that some of his best friends are the gays: His boasts of having “eaten dinner in gay homes” and loving Melissa Etheridge records will not protect any gay families’ civil rights.

Equally lame is the argument mounted by an Obama spokeswoman, Linda Douglass, who talks of how Warren has fought for “people who have H.I.V./AIDS.” Shouldn’t that be the default position of any religious leader? Fighting AIDS is not a get-out-of-homophobia-free card. That Bush finally joined Bono in doing the right thing about AIDS in Africa does not mitigate the gay-baiting of his 2004 campaign, let alone his silence and utter inaction when the epidemic was killing Texans by the thousands, many of them gay men, during his term as governor.

Unlike Bush, Obama has been the vocal advocate of gay civil rights he claims to be. It is over the top to assert, as a gay writer at Time did, that the president-elect is “a very tolerant, very rational-sounding sort of bigot.” Much more to the point is the astute criticism leveled by the gay Democratic congressman Barney Frank, who, in dissenting from the Warren choice, said of Obama, “I think he overestimates his ability to get people to put aside fundamental differences.” That’s a polite way of describing the Obama cockiness. It will take more than the force of the new president’s personality and eloquence to turn our nation into the United States of America he and we all want it to be.

Obama may not only overestimate his ability to bridge some of our fundamental differences but also underestimate how persistent some of those differences are. The exhilaration of his decisive election victory and the deserved applause that has greeted his mostly glitch-free transition can’t entirely mask the tensions underneath. Before there is profound social change, there is always high anxiety.

The success of Proposition 8 in California was a serious shock to gay Americans and to all the rest of us who believe that all marriages should be equal under the law. The roles played by African-Americans (who voted 70 percent in favor of Proposition 8) and by white Mormons (who were accused of bankrolling the anti-same-sex-marriage campaign) only added to the morning-after recriminations. And that was in blue California. In Arkansas, voters went so far as to approve a measure forbidding gay couples to adopt.

There is comparable anger and fear on the right. David Brody, a political correspondent with the Christian Broadcasting Network, was flooded with e-mails from religious conservatives chastising Warren for accepting the invitation to the inaugural. They vilified Obama as “pro-death” and worse because of his support for abortion rights.

Stoking this rage, no doubt, is the dawning realization that the old religious right is crumbling — in part because Warren’s new generation of leaders departs from the Falwell-Robertson brand of zealots who have had a stranglehold on the G.O.P. It’s a sign of the old establishment’s panic that the Rev. Richard Cizik, known for his leadership in addressing global warming, was pushed out of his executive post at the National Association of Evangelicals this month. Cizik’s sin was to tell Terry Gross of NPR that he was starting to shift in favor of civil unions for gay couples.

Cizik’s ouster won’t halt the new wave he represents. As he also told Gross, young evangelicals care less and less about the old wedge issues and aren’t as likely to base their votes on them. On gay rights in particular, polls show that young evangelicals are moving in Cizik’s (and the country’s) direction and away from what John McCain once rightly called “the agents of intolerance.” It’s not a coincidence that Dobson’s Focus on the Family, which spent more than $500,000 promoting Proposition 8, has now had to lay off 20 percent of its work force in Colorado Springs.

But we’re not there yet. Warren’s defamation of gay people illustrates why, as does our president-elect’s rationalization of it. When Obama defends Warren’s words by calling them an example of the “wide range of viewpoints” in a “diverse and noisy and opinionated” America, he is being too cute by half. He knows full well that a “viewpoint” defaming any minority group by linking it to sexual crimes like pedophilia is unacceptable.

It is even more toxic in a year when that group has been marginalized and stripped of its rights by ballot initiatives fomenting precisely such fears. “You’ve got to give them hope” was the refrain of the pioneering 1970s gay politician Harvey Milk, so stunningly brought back to life by Sean Penn on screen this winter. Milk reminds us that hope has to mean action, not just words.

By the historical standards of presidential hubris, Obama’s disingenuous defense of his tone-deaf invitation to Warren is nonetheless a relatively tiny infraction. It’s no Bay of Pigs. But it does add an asterisk to the joyous inaugural of our first black president. It’s bizarre that Obama, of all people, would allow himself to be on the wrong side of this history.

Since he’s not about to rescind the invitation, what happens next? For perspective, I asked Timothy McCarthy, a historian who teaches at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and an unabashed Obama enthusiast who served on his campaign’s National Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Leadership Council. He responded via e-mail on Christmas Eve.

After noting that Warren’s role at the inauguration is, in the end, symbolic, McCarthy concluded that “it’s now time to move from symbol to substance.” This means Warren should “recant his previous statements about gays and lesbians, and start acting like a Christian.”

McCarthy added that it’s also time “for President-elect Obama to start acting on the promises he made to the LGBT community during his campaign so that he doesn’t go down in history as another Bill Clinton, a sweet-talking swindler who would throw us under the bus for the sake of political expediency.” And “for LGBT folks to choose their battles wisely, to judge Obama on the content of his policy-making, not on the character of his ministers.”

Amen. Here’s to humility and equanimity everywhere in America, starting at the top, as we negotiate the fierce rapids of change awaiting us in the New Year.

Egan, Friedman, Kristof and Rich

December 14, 2008

Mr. Egan gives us “Final Days Fire Sale,” in which he says as the Bush administration winds down, it has a message for the oil and gas industry: Take what you want — and get while the getting is good.  Mr. Friedman considers “Cars, Kabul and Banks,” and says that when Barack Obama takes office he will have to make mammoth decisions. The bases of those decisions should be on the things themselves, the core truths about each.  Mr. Kristof suggests that someone put “A Finger in the Dike,” and that there are sound arguments against an auto bailout, but none trump the argument for one — when conditions are so fragile, we can’t risk a staggering blow to the national economy.  Mr. Rich has “Two Cheers for Rod Blagojevich,” and says Gov. Rod Blagojevich of Illinois is a timely national whipping boy for an era of corruption and profound lack of accountability.  Here’s Mr. Egan:

Imagine if President Bush, on his last day in office, invited his friends to lift the Lincoln portrait from the White House Dining Room, take the 18th- century furniture from the Map Room and — for good measure — poison the Rose Garden on the way out.

In essence, he is doing the same thing this month with land that belongs to every American — the magical redrock country of the Southwest.

Well before it was a bumper sticker and a chant at Sarah Palin rallies, “drill, baby, drill” became the overriding mission of the political hacks who oversee more than 200 million acres of public land for Bush. At a frantic pace, they have opened up to oil and gas leasing canyons of golden slickrock, mesas once known only to hunters and pronghorn antelope, and little hideaways near the open-aired art galleries of the Anasazi.

Take what you want, they said — and get while the getting is good. It was a plunderfest that produced a gangster culture, with dozens of high-level Interior Department employees exchanging sex, cocaine and gifts with the industry they were supposed to be doing arms-length business with, according to a scathing and quickly forgotten report this year by the agency’s inspector general.

At the time of the report, with gas reaching $4 a gallon, many people shrugged and said we need the oil — drill, baby, drill. Now gas is selling for a pittance, but that hasn’t stopped the fire sale. Everything must go!

On Election Day, the Bush administration announced it would open 360,000 acres of public land in Utah to oil and gas leasing, including about 100,000 acres near Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, and Dinosaur National Monument.

As with the $700 billion bailout that Bush insisted had to be given to the very bankers, insurance companies and other tassel-loafed failures who got us into the economic meltdown, the president now wants every dead-ender in the energy business to have one last treat.

Solitude and ageless stone may not be commodities as easily quantified as a couple of thousand barrels of oil. But to the American inheritance, they are the equivalent of those first-edition Audubon books and presidential portraits in the White House.

The administration never even consulted with the parks before announcing they would have oil and gas rigs on their borders.

The giveaways went far beyond public land. For the coal industry, the parting gift was a federal rule that makes it easier to dump mining waste into streams. Anyone who has spent time in Appalachia of late has seen the handiwork — entire mountaintops lopped off in an end-of-days rush for a dirty fossil fuel.

On Thursday, Bush handed out another goodie: a rule that largely frees federal agencies from having to consult independent biologists before constructing something that could lead to the extinction of birds, fish or other endangered species.

Following a storm of outrage by park officials and the incoming Obama team, the government has now backed off from some of the more egregious sales in the Southwest. But on the upcoming Friday before Christmas, it will still auction off more than 150,000 acres near some of the most stunning scenery in the world.

In a concession, officials promised that oil and gas operations would be camouflaged — the rigs and drills painted a desert red so that visitors to the wildlands of Utah would not have industrial clutter marring their sunset picture.

It would be one thing if we needed the fuel. Of nearly 9,000 oil and gas permits approved on public land in Utah, barely a third of them have been drilled. The way this game works is that oil companies buy the leasing rights — in some case for as little as $2.50 an acre — then wait for Saudi Arabia to force another oil price spike. Then they drill.

And the impact on price or domestic supply? Nothing. Even if all the accessible oil and gas were taken from federal land in Utah, it would have zero impact on prices, according to several studies.

But the loss is incalculable — “geologic architecture that has inspired our American character,” and places where “the curvature of the earth is not only seen but felt,” as the ever-lyrical Terry Tempest Williams wrote in a recent essay in The Los Angeles Times.

So why do it? Because they still can. The only urgency is Jan. 20.

Eight years ago, in an act of frat-boy vandalism during their departure from the White House, members of Bill Clinton’s staff ripped W’s off computer keyboards and glued shut some shelves. If only Bush could revert to his college character type, and leave us with such a benign exit mark.

My column of Dec. 7 incorrectly attributed a quote to Winston Churchill. It was George Orwell who said, “Writing a book is a horrible, exhaustive struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness.”

Here’s The Moustache of Wisdom:

If there is anything I’ve learned as a reporter, it’s that when you get away from “the thing itself” — the core truth about a situation — you get into trouble. Barack Obama will have to make three mammoth decisions after he takes the oath of office — on cars, Kabul and banks — and we have to hope that he bases those decisions on the things themselves, the core truths about each. Because many people will be trying to throw fairy dust in his eyes.

The first issue will be whether to bail out Detroit. What is the core truth about Detroit? Auto executives will tell you that it’s the credit crisis, health care, retirement costs and unions. Sure, those are real. But the core truth is that for way too long Detroit made too many cars that too many people did not want to buy. As even General Motors conceded in its apology ad last week: “At times we violated your trust by letting our quality fall below industry standards and our designs become lackluster.” Walk through any college campus today. You don’t see a lot of Buicks.

Over the years, Detroit bosses kept repeating: “We have to make the cars people want.” That’s why they’re in trouble. Their job is to make the cars people don’t know they want but will buy like crazy when they see them. I would have been happy with my Sony Walkman had Apple not invented the iPod. Now I can’t live without my iPod. I didn’t know I wanted it, but Apple did. Same with my Toyota hybrid.

The auto consultant John Casesa once noted that Detroit’s management has gone from visionaries to operators to caretakers. I would say that they have now gone from caretakers to undertakers. If they are ready to bring in some visionaries and totally restructure — inside or outside of bankruptcy — so they can make money selling cars that people will want to buy, then I say help them. I’d hate to see the Detroit auto industry go under. But if all we are doing is prolonging auto undertakers, then we have to let nature take its course.

After Detroit, Mr. Obama will be asked to bail out Afghanistan. Watch out. The tide has turned against us there because too many Afghans don’t want to buy our politics, or, more precisely, the politics of our ally, the corrupt government of President Hamid Karzai. That is “the thing itself.”

The main reason our Iraq bailout — a k a “the surge” — has had a positive effect is because Iraqis voted with their own guns and their own lives, taking on both Al Qaeda and pro-Iranian Shiite militants. Iraq has avoided bankruptcy for the moment — a total meltdown — because enough Iraqis wanted what we were selling: freedom from extremists. That is the thing itself, and right now I’m not seeing enough of that thing in Afghanistan. Beware of a Kabul bailout.

But maybe the most flagrant area where we continue to avoid looking at “the thing itself” is with our banks. What we are dealing with there is the effect of a credit bubble that began in the late-1980s with the advent of global securitization — the chopping up and bundling into bonds of everything from home mortgages to student loans to airplane leases, and then selling them around the world.

When you take this much leverage and this much globalization and this much complexity and start it in America, and then blow it up, you have a nuclear financial explosion. The deflating of this credit bubble is so wealth-destroying that even the most prudent banks have been ravaged by it.

What to do? The smartest people I know in banking are praying that Obama’s Treasury Department will tackle “the thing itself.” That is, do a real analysis of what the major banks are worth in a worst-case scenario. Then determine, if, on that basis, they have viable, survivable equity-to-asset ratios.

Those that do should get more government investment. Those that are close should be forced to find new investors and merge. And those not viable should be shut down and have their bad assets bought by a government-owned body (which would sell them over time) and their deposits shifted to healthy banks to make those banks even healthier. Some experts believe we still need to close 1,000 banks.

This process will be painful, but probably by the end of a year the market will clear, investors will come in, and the surviving banks will be ready to lend to each other and you and me. The “thing itself” here is that banks still don’t want to lend because they still don’t know the true value of their own balance sheets, let alone anyone else’s.

The market has to clear. We can do it painfully and quickly, as we did with the dot-coms, or we can be Japan and drag it out.

So whether its cars, Kabul or banks, we have to stop wishing for the worlds we want and start dealing with the things themselves. If Obama does, his first year will be excruciatingly painful, but he could have three years after that to be creative. If he doesn’t, I fear that cars, Kabul and banks will dog his whole presidency.

Here’s Mr. Kristof:

For the first time in human history, I agree with Dick Cheney. According to The Los Angeles Times, he warned Republican senators that if they refused to bail out the auto companies, “we will be known as the party of Herbert Hoover forever.”

The senators from the Herbert Hoover Party promptly fumbled, but President Bush seems poised to rescue the car companies anyway. Thank heaven!

Look, there are plenty of sound arguments against a bailout. But there’s a practical argument that trumps everything: when conditions are so fragile, we can’t risk a staggering blow to the national economy. When you see a hole in the dike, don’t discuss the virtues of laissez-faire policies — plug it!

There were also sound arguments for not rescuing Lehman Brothers. So the government allowed Lehman to collapse — and almost everybody now recognizes that it was a mistake that cost taxpayers more than a bailout would have.

Lehman Brothers was small potatoes — a tiny French fry — compared with America’s automakers. Lehman Brothers had 25,000 employees worldwide; General Motors alone has 250,000.

The Big Three have almost 400,000 employees worldwide, including about 230,000 in the United States. In addition, several hundred thousand people make car parts for the Big Three, and a half-million more sell or distribute cars from them. All told, considerably more than one million jobs in the United States depend directly on the American automakers, and many more indirectly.

Let’s look at the reasons cited for washing our hands of the auto companies:

A rescue mucks up the dynamic of capitalism; governments shouldn’t spend taxpayer dollars to reward failure. Thomas Murphy, the chairman of General Motors at the time of the 1979 Chrysler bailout, perhaps put it best: a bailout of Chrysler, he said then, would constitute “a basic challenge to the philosophy of America.”

In fact, the Chrysler bailout went ahead and worked pretty well. Jobs were saved, Chrysler retooled and came up with successful cars that included the first minivan, and the Treasury was repaid and made a profit on the bailout.

We’ve already rewarded failure by bailing out the banking sector, because the alternative was worse. If the same is true again, and it’s cheaper to rescue the car companies than clean up the mess afterward, wouldn’t a rescue reflect a pragmatism that is precisely “the philosophy of America”?

The solution isn’t a bailout, it’s bankruptcy. If the car companies enter Chapter 11, they’ll be able to rework burdensome contracts and actually make themselves competitive again. That’s how the airlines recovered, and auto companies shouldn’t be favored.

Bankruptcy would be a gamble because we just don’t know whether cars from bankrupt companies will still sell. I’ll buy a $400 air ticket to fly on a bankrupt airline, because it’ll still be honored in a month’s time, but that doesn’t mean I’ll spend $30,000 on a car from a bankrupt company when I’m counting on its resale value in 10 years’ time.

While bankruptcy would help automakers extricate themselves from onerous contracts, the gap with foreign automakers isn’t as wide as some believe. As my Times colleague David Leonhardt has noted, the reported $73-an-hour wage in Detroit is a fiction. Union workers at the Big Three get about $55 per hour in wages and benefits, compared with $45 per hour for nonunion workers at the American plants of Honda or Toyota. One reason for the gap is that the Detroit labor force is older, and health and other benefits are always more expensive for a 50-year-old worker than for one half that age.

A bailout is hopeless: This is a bridge loan to nowhere.

Yes, the Obama administration will have to come back in January with a full rescue package. The package should focus on saving jobs, not stockholders or bondholders. Shareholders should lose most of their investments, bondholders should get a haircut, managers and board members should be ousted, autoworkers should have their pay and benefits trimmed to market levels, and taxpayers should get an equity stake that they could profit from.

But saving the auto sector isn’t hopeless. Car companies have made progress in recent years, as underscored by the Chevy Volt, a plug-in hybrid that can go 40 miles without using a drop of gas. (The catch is that if gas prices stay as low as they are now, consumers may instead be demanding gas-guzzling S.U.V.’s.)

Think of a bailout as part of the huge planned stimulus package. It’s much cheaper to keep people in their existing jobs than to create new jobs elsewhere.

I lived in Tokyo in the 1990s, as perfectly reasonable arguments for government restraint led to acquiescence in the face of escalating economic disasters. Anyone who lived through Japan’s “lost decade” understands that the risks of inaction are greater than the risks of action.

And now here’s Mr. Rich:

Rod Blagojevich is the perfect holiday treat for a country fighting off depression. He gift-wraps the ugliness of corruption in the mirthful garb of farce. From a safe distance outside Illinois, it’s hard not to laugh at the “culture of Chicago,” where even the president-elect’s Senate seat is just another commodity to be bought and sold.

But the entertainment is escapist only up to a point. What went down in the Land of Lincoln is just the reductio ad absurdum of an American era where both entitlement and corruption have been the calling cards of power. Blagojevich’s alleged crimes pale next to the larger scandals of Washington and Wall Street. Yet those who promoted and condoned the twin national catastrophes of reckless war in Iraq and reckless gambling in our markets have largely escaped the accountability that now seems to await the Chicago punk nabbed by the United States attorney, Patrick Fitzgerald.

The Republican partisans cheering Fitzgerald’s prosecution of a Democrat have forgotten his other red-letter case in this decade, his conviction of Scooter Libby, Dick Cheney’s chief of staff. Libby was far bigger prey. He was part of the White House Iraq Group, the task force of propagandists that sold an entire war to America on false pretenses. Because Libby was caught lying to a grand jury and federal prosecutors as well as to the public, he was sentenced to two and a half years in prison. But President Bush commuted the sentence before he served a day.

Fitzgerald was not pleased. “It is fundamental to the rule of law that all citizens stand before the bar of justice as equals,” he said at the time.

Not in the Bush era, man. Though the president had earlier vowed to fire anyone involved in leaking the classified identity of a C.I.A. officer, Valerie Plame Wilson — the act Libby tried to cover up by committing perjury — both Libby and his collaborator in leaking, Karl Rove, remained in place.

Accountability wasn’t remotely on Bush’s mind. If anything, he was more likely to reward malfeasance and incompetence, as exemplified by his gifting of the Presidential Medal of Freedom to George Tenet, L. Paul Bremer and Gen. Tommy Franks, three of the most culpable stooges of the Iraq fiasco.

Bush had arrived in Washington vowing to inaugurate a new, post-Clinton era of “personal responsibility” in which “people are accountable for their actions.” Eight years later he holds himself accountable for nothing. In his recent exit interview with Charles Gibson, he presented himself as a passive witness to disastrous events, the Forrest Gump of his own White House. He wishes “the intelligence had been different” about W.M.D. in Iraq — as if his administration hadn’t hyped and manipulated that intelligence. As for the economic meltdown, he had this to say: “I’m sorry it’s happening, of course.”

If you want to trace the bipartisan roots of the morally bankrupt culture that has now found its culmination in our financial apocalypse, a good place to start is late 2001 and 2002, just as the White House contemplated inflating Saddam’s W.M.D. That’s when we learned about another scandal with cooked books, Enron. This was a supreme embarrassment for Bush, whose political career had been bankrolled by the Enron titan Kenneth Lay, or, as Bush nicknamed him back in Texas, “Kenny Boy.”

The chagrined president eventually convened a one-day “economic summit” photo op in August 2002 (held in Waco, Tex., lest his vacation in Crawford be disrupted). But while some perpetrators of fraud at Enron would ultimately pay a price, any lessons from its demise, including a need for safeguards, were promptly forgotten by one and all in the power centers of both federal and corporate governance.

Enron was an energy company that had diversified to trade in derivatives — financial instruments that were bets on everything from exchange rates to the weather. It was also brilliant in devising shell companies that kept hundreds of millions of dollars of debt off the company’s bottom line and away from the prying eyes of shareholders.

Regulators had failed to see the iceberg in Enron’s path and so had Enron’s own accountants at Arthur Andersen, a corporate giant whose parallel implosion had its own casualty list of some 80,000 jobs. Despite Bush’s post-Enron call for “a new ethic of personal responsibility in the business community,” the exact opposite has happened in the six years since. Warren Buffett’s warning in 2003 that derivatives were “financial weapons of mass destruction” was politely ignored. Much larger companies than Enron figured out how to place even bigger and more impenetrable gambles on derivatives, all the while piling up unseen debt. They built castles of air on a far grander scale than Kenny Boy could have imagined, doing so with sheer stupidity and cavalier, greed-fueled carelessness rather than fraud.

The most stupendous example as measured in dollars is Citigroup, now the recipient of potentially the biggest taxpayer bailout to date. The price tag could be some $300 billion — 20 times the proposed first installment of the scuttled Detroit bailout. Citigroup’s toxic derivatives, often tied to subprime mortgages, metastasized without appearing on the balance sheet. Both the company’s former chief executive, Charles O. Prince III, and his senior adviser, Robert Rubin, the former Clinton Treasury secretary, have said they didn’t know the size of the worthless holdings until they’d spiraled into the tens of billions of dollars.

Once again, regulators slept. Once again, credit-rating agencies, typified this time by Moody’s, kept giving a thumbs-up to worthless paper until it was too late. There was just so much easy money to be made, and no one wanted to be left out. As Michael Lewis concludes in his brilliant account of “the end” of Wall Street in Portfolio magazine: “Something for nothing. It never loses its charm.”

But if all bubbles and panics are alike, this one, the worst since the Great Depression, also carried the DNA of our own time. Enron had been a Citigroup client. In a now-forgotten footnote to that scandal, Rubin was discovered to have made a phone call to a former colleague in the Treasury Department to float the idea of asking credit-rating agencies to delay downgrading Enron’s debt. This inappropriate lobbying never went anywhere, but Rubin neither apologized nor learned any lessons. “I can see why that call might be questioned,” he wrote in his 2003 memoir, “but I would make it again.” He would say the same this year about his performance at Citigroup during its collapse.

The Republican side of the same tarnished coin is Phil Gramm, the former senator from Texas. Like Rubin, he helped push through banking deregulation when in government in the 1990s, then cashed in on the relaxed rules by joining the banking industry once he left Washington. Gramm is at UBS, which also binged on credit-default swaps and is now receiving a $60 billion bailout from the Swiss government.

It’s a sad snapshot of our century’s establishment that Rubin has been an economic adviser to Barack Obama and Gramm to John McCain. And that both captains of finance remain unapologetic, unaccountable and still at their banks, which have each lost more than 70 percent of their shareholders’ value this year and have collectively announced more than 90,000 layoffs so far.

The Times calls its chilling investigative series on the financial failures “The Reckoning,” but the reckoning is largely for the rest of us — taxpayers, shareholders, the countless laid-off employees — not the corporate and political leaders who led us into the quagmire. It’s a replay of the Iraq equation: the troops, the Iraqi people and American taxpayers have borne the harshest costs while Bush and company retire to their McMansions.

As our outgoing president passes the buck for his failures — all that bad intelligence — so do leaders in the private and public sectors who enabled the economic debacle. Gramm has put the blame for the subprime fiasco on “predatory borrowers.” Rubin has blamed a “perfect storm” of economic factors, as has Sam Zell, the magnate who bought and maimed the Tribune newspapers in a highly leveraged financial stunt that led to a bankruptcy filing last week. Donald Trump has invoked a standard “act of God” clause to avoid paying a $40 million construction loan on his huge new project in Chicago.

After a while they all start to sound like O. J. Simpson, who when at last held accountable for some of his behavior told a Las Vegas judge this month, “In no way did I mean to hurt anybody.” Or perhaps they are channeling Donald Rumsfeld, whose famous excuse for his failure to secure post-invasion Iraq, “Stuff happens,” could be the epitaph of our age.

Our next president, like his predecessor, is promising “a new era of responsibility and accountability.” We must hope he means it. Meanwhile, we have the governor he leaves behind in Illinois to serve as our national whipping boy, the one betrayer of the public trust who could actually end up paying for his behavior. The surveillance tapes of Blagojevich are so fabulous it seems a tragedy we don’t have similar audio records of the bigger fish who have wrecked the country. But in these hard times we’ll take what we can get.

Oh, for the days of the Nixon taping system…

Egan and Friedman

December 10, 2008

Mr. Egan gives us “Roll Over, Abe Lincoln,” in which he says Gov. Rod Blagojevich of Illinois even used financing for a hospital as leverage points for a shakedown. Abe probably did a triple lutz in his grave.  Mr. Friedman, in “While Detroit Slept,” says someone is already developing an alternative to Detroit’s business model. I don’t know if it will work, but I do know that it can be done — and Detroit isn’t doing it.  MoDo is off today.  Here’s Mr. Egan:

For some time now, the most unpopular governor in the United States, Rod Blagojevich of Illinois, has been treated like a flu virus at a nursing home.

“He’s kryptonite,” one state representative called him in a Chicago Magazine profile last February. “Nobody wants to get near him.”

But it wasn’t until Tuesday, and the filing of a 76-page criminal complaint centered around the auctioning of a Senate seat, that we got a full X-ray of politics at its sickest.

Putting aside the peculiar dialect of desperation that made the governor sound like a John Malkovich character in a David Mamet play, the complaint showed a man trolling the depths of darkness.

The beloved Cubs, the sainted Warren Buffett, editorial writers from the Chicago Tribune, even financing for a children’s hospital — all were targets or leverage points for a shakedown.

The surprise is that he didn’t offer to sell out exclusive rights to deep-dish pizza.

If the world was roused by the sight from Chicago barely one month ago, hundreds of thousands of people streaming into Grant Park to celebrate the triumph of possibility over tainted history, the arrest of Governor Blagojevich on a dark and drizzly Chicago dawn was quite the opposite image.

Abe Lincoln may have rolled over once in pleasant surprise at the election of Barack Obama, and another time in revulsion at Blagojevich’s arrest, as prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald said. More likely, Abe did a triple lutz in his grave on Tuesday.

If nothing else, Blagojevich did Obama the favor of a nonendorsement quote for the ages. According to the federal transcript, the governor showed disgust, barely a week after Obama’s election, that he could not get anything in return for offering the Senate seat to an ally of the president-elect.

“They’re not willing to give me anything except appreciation,” the governor says, as outlined in the criminal complaint.

It would be somewhat comforting if there were a larger lesson here, or a map out of the banality of evil. But there is no trend or modern twist, no evidence of a greater criminal web, no overarching moral. Like a kid who beats up old ladies just because he knows no other way, the allegations against Blagojevich amount to what Fitzgerald called a crime spree, of the political variety.

The prosecutor’s narrative of plotting bad intentions and narcissism — Blago actually thought he was a viable candidate for president in 2016 — is a particularly graphic example of why some men see things as they are and ask: what’s in it for me?

Fitzgerald, who prosecuted Scooter Libby under the pressure of a White House not used to getting questioned by anyone, is the son of a Manhattan doorman and the product of Catholic schools at their finest. It’s unlikely that his dad ever heard anything to match the conversations captured by federal wiretaps in Illinois.

Like all damaged politicians, the Blagojevich in the complaint knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.

What’s a Senate seat worth? “Golden,” and the governor vowed that he would not give it up for nothing.

How about help for the Tribune Company’s attempt to sell Wrigley Field and the Cubs? That would require getting rid of editorial writers who had called for his resignation. Fire them all, Blagojevich is quoted as having said, adding, “And get us some editorial support.”

Aid for a children’s hospital? That would require a contribution of at least $50,000.

On and on it goes, trash talk of the want-to-be-rich-and-infamous. Even by Illinois standards, where the path from the Statehouse to the jailhouse holds the footprints of numerous governors, Tuesday’s arrest and complaint was breathtaking.

“If it isn’t the most corrupt state in the United States,” said Robert Grant, a F.B.I. special agent, “it’s one hell of a competitor.”

On Monday, the eve of his arrest, Blagojevich showed that he could include hubris among his many flirtations with disaster. At a rally of out-of-work factory hands soiled by his presence, he all but asked to be followed and recorded.

“I should say if anybody wants to tape my conversations, go right ahead,” he said. “I can tell you whatever I say is always lawful.”

Then, like Huey Long at his most egregious, he cast himself as the person who has nothing to sell but an honest day’s labor. If you were to tape him, he added, you would hear a governor “who tirelessly and endlessly figures out ways to help average, ordinary working people.”

Substitute one word — himself — for working people, and you have the essence of Governor Blagojevich.

Here’s Mr. Friedman:

As I think about our bailing out Detroit, I can’t help but reflect on what, in my view, is the most important rule of business in today’s integrated and digitized global market, where knowledge and innovation tools are so widely distributed. It’s this: Whatever can be done, will be done. The only question is will it be done by you or to you. Just don’t think it won’t be done. If you have an idea in Detroit or Tennessee, promise me that you’ll pursue it, because someone in Denmark or Tel Aviv will do so a second later.

Why do I bring this up? Because someone in the mobility business in Denmark and Tel Aviv is already developing a real-world alternative to Detroit’s business model. I don’t know if this alternative to gasoline-powered cars will work, but I do know that it can be done — and Detroit isn’t doing it. And therefore it will be done, and eventually, I bet, it will be done profitably.

And when it is, our bailout of Detroit will be remembered as the equivalent of pouring billions of dollars of taxpayer money into the mail-order-catalogue business on the eve of the birth of eBay. It will be remembered as pouring billions of dollars into the CD music business on the eve of the birth of the iPod and iTunes. It will be remembered as pouring billions of dollars into a book-store chain on the eve of the birth of Amazon.com and the Kindle. It will be remembered as pouring billions of dollars into improving typewriters on the eve of the birth of the PC and the Internet.

What business model am I talking about? It is Shai Agassi’s electric car network company, called Better Place. Just last week, the company, based in Palo Alto, Calif., announced a partnership with the state of Hawaii to road test its business plan there after already inking similar deals with Israel, Australia, the San Francisco Bay area and, yes, Denmark.

The Better Place electric car charging system involves generating electrons from as much renewable energy — such as wind and solar — as possible and then feeding those clean electrons into a national electric car charging infrastructure. This consists of electricity charging spots with plug-in outlets — the first pilots were opened in Israel this week — plus battery-exchange stations all over the respective country. The whole system is then coordinated by a service control center that integrates and does the billing.

Under the Better Place model, consumers can either buy or lease an electric car from the French automaker Renault or Japanese companies like Nissan (General Motors snubbed Agassi) and then buy miles on their electric car batteries from Better Place the way you now buy an Apple cellphone and the minutes from AT&T. That way Better Place, or any car company that partners with it, benefits from each mile you drive. G.M. sells cars. Better Place is selling mobility miles.

The first Renault and Nissan electric cars are scheduled to hit Denmark and Israel in 2011, when the whole system should be up and running. On Tuesday, Japan’s Ministry of Environment invited Better Place to join the first government-led electric car project along with Honda, Mitsubishi and Subaru. Better Place was the only foreign company invited to participate, working with Japan’s leading auto companies, to build a battery swap station for electric cars in Yokohama, the Detroit of Japan.

What I find exciting about Better Place is that it is building a car company off the new industrial platform of the 21st century, not the one from the 20th — the exact same way that Steve Jobs did to overturn the music business. What did Apple understand first? One, that today’s technology platform would allow anyone with a computer to record music. Two, that the Internet and MP3 players would allow anyone to transfer music in digital form to anyone else. You wouldn’t need CDs or record companies anymore. Apple simply took all those innovations and integrated them into a single music-generating, purchasing and listening system that completely disrupted the music business.

What Agassi, the founder of Better Place, is saying is that there is a new way to generate mobility, not just music, using the same platform. It just takes the right kind of auto battery — the iPod in this story — and the right kind of national plug-in network — the iTunes store — to make the business model work for electric cars at six cents a mile. The average American is paying today around 12 cents a mile for gasoline transportation, which also adds to global warming and strengthens petro-dictators.

Do not expect this innovation to come out of Detroit. Remember, in 1908, the Ford Model-T got better mileage — 25 miles per gallon — than many Ford, G.M. and Chrysler models made in 2008. But don’t be surprised when it comes out of somewhere else. It can be done. It will be done. If we miss the chance to win the race for Car 2.0 because we keep mindlessly bailing out Car 1.0, there will be no one to blame more than Detroit’s new shareholders: we the taxpayers.

Egan, Kristof, Friedman and Rich

December 7, 2008

MoDo is off today, so Timothy Egan has taken over.  He takes note of the fact that Joe the Plumber is publishing something he’s calling a book in “Typing Without a Clue.”  He asks that publishers set some ground rules:   Anyone who abuses the English language on such a regular basis should not be paid to put words in print.  Mr. Kristof writes about “A Killer Without Borders,” and says Americans don’t think much about tuberculosis, just as we didn’t think much of AIDS in the 1980s. The risk is that our myopia will catch up with us.  Mr. Friedman, in “The Real Generation X,” says to reverse the damage caused by this generation of greedy adults, we will not only need to bail out industries of the past but to build up industries of the future.  Frank Rich says “The Brightest Are Not Always the Best,” and that long before the phrase “the best and the brightest” became the accolade du jour, it was meant to strike a sardonic, not a flattering, note.  Here’s Mr. Egan:

The unlicensed pipe fitter known as Joe the Plumber is out with a book this month, just as the last seconds on his 15 minutes are slipping away. I have a question for Joe: Do you want me to fix your leaky toilet?

I didn’t think so. And I don’t want you writing books. Not when too many good novelists remain unpublished. Not when too many extraordinary histories remain unread. Not when too many riveting memoirs are kicked back at authors after 10 years of toil. Not when voices in Iran, North Korea or China struggle to get past a censor’s gate.

Joe, a k a Samuel J. Wurzelbacher, was no good as a citizen, having failed to pay his full share of taxes, no good as a plumber, not being fully credentialed, and not even any good as a faux American icon. Who could forget poor John McCain at his most befuddled, calling out for his working-class surrogate on a day when Joe stiffed him.

With a résumé full of failure, he now thinks he can join the profession of Mark Twain, George Orwell and Joan Didion.

Next up may be Sarah Palin, who is said to be worth nearly $7 million if she can place her thoughts between covers. Publishers: with all the grim news of layoffs and staff cuts at the venerable houses of American letters, can we set some ground rules for these hard times? Anyone who abuses the English language on such a regular basis should not be paid to put words in print.

Here’s Palin’s response, after Matt Lauer asked her when she knew the election was lost:

“I had great faith that, you know, perhaps when that voter entered that voting booth and closed that curtain that what would kick in for them was, perhaps, a bold step that would have to be taken in casting a vote for us, but having to put a lot of faith in that commitment we tried to articulate that we were the true change agent that would progress this nation.”

I have no idea what she said in that thicket of words.

Most of the writers I know work every day, in obscurity and close to poverty, trying to say one thing well and true. Day in, day out, they labor to find their voice, to learn their trade, to understand nuance and pace. And then, facing a sea of rejections, they hear about something like Barbara Bush’s dog getting a book deal.

Writing is hard, even for the best wordsmiths. Ernest Hemingway said the most frightening thing he ever encountered was “a blank sheet of paper.” And Winston Churchill called the act of writing a book “a horrible, exhaustive struggle, like a long bout of painful illness.”

When I heard J.T.P. had a book, I thought of that Chris Farley skit from “Saturday Night Live.” He’s a motivational counselor, trying to keep some slacker youths from living in a van down by the river, just like him. One kid tells him he wants to write.

“La-di-frickin’-da!” Farley says. “We got ourselves a writer here!”

If Joe really wants to write, he should keep his day job and spend his evenings reading Rick Reilly’s sports columns, Peggy Noonan’s speeches, or Jess Walter’s fiction. He should open Dostoevsky or Norman Maclean — for osmosis, if nothing else. He should study Frank McCourt on teaching or Annie Dillard on writing.

The idea that someone who stumbled into a sound bite can be published, and charge $24.95 for said words, makes so many real writers think the world is unfair.

Our next president is a writer, which may do something to elevate standards in the book industry. The last time a true writer occupied the White House was a hundred years ago, with Teddy Roosevelt, who wrote 13 books before his 40th birthday.

Barack Obama’s first book, the memoir of a mixed-race man, is terrific. Outside of a few speeches, he will probably not write anything memorable until he’s out office, but I look forward to that presidential memoir.

For the others — you friends of celebrities penning cookbooks, you train wrecks just out of rehab, you politicians with an agent but no talent — stop soaking up precious advance money.

I know: publishers say they print garbage so that real literature, which seldom makes any money, can find its way into print. True, to a point. But some of them print garbage so they can buy more garbage.

There was a time when I wanted to be like Sting, the singer, belting out, “Roxanne …” I guess that’s why we have karaoke, for fantasy night. If only there was such a thing for failed plumbers, politicians or celebrities who think they can write.

Heh…  Here’s Mr. Kristof, writing from Yerevan, Armenia:

As if you didn’t have enough to worry about … consider the deadly, infectious and highly portable disease sitting in the lungs of a charming young man here, Garik Hakobyan. In effect, he’s a time bomb.

Mr. Hakobyan, 34, an artist, carries an ailment that stars in the nightmares of public health experts — XDR-TB, the scariest form of tuberculosis. It doesn’t respond to conventional treatments and is often incurable.

XDR-TB could spread to your neighborhood because it isn’t being aggressively addressed now, before it rages out of control. It’s being nurtured by global complacency.

When doctors here in Armenia said they would introduce me to XDR patients, I figured we would all be swathed in protective clothing and chat in muffled voices in a secure ward of a hospital. Instead, they simply led me outside to a public park, where Mr. Hakobyan sat on a bench with me.

“It’s pretty safe outside, because his coughs are dispersed,” one doctor explained, “but you wouldn’t want to be in a room or vehicle with him.” Then I asked Mr. Hakobyan how he had gotten to the park.

“A public bus,” he said.

He saw my look and added: “I have to take buses. I don’t have my own Lincoln Continental.” To his great credit, Mr. Hakobyan is trying to minimize his contact with others and doesn’t date, but he inevitably ends up mixing with people.

Afterward, I asked one of his doctors if Mr. Hakobyan could have spread his lethal infection to other bus passengers. “Yes,” she said thoughtfully. “There was one study that found that a single TB patient can infect 14 other people in the course of a single bus ride.”

Americans don’t think much about TB, just as we didn’t think much of AIDS in the 1980s. But drug-resistant TB is spreading — half a million cases a year already — and in a world connected by jet planes and constant flows of migrants and tourists, the risk is that our myopia will catch up with us.

Barack Obama’s administration should ensure it isn’t complacent about TB in the way that Ronald Reagan was about AIDS. Reagan didn’t let the word AIDS pass his lips publicly until he was into his second term, and this inattention allowed the disease to spread far more than necessary. That’s not a mistake the Obama administration should make with tuberculosis.

One-third of the world’s population is infected with TB, and some 1.5 million people die annually of it. That’s more than die of malaria or any infectious disease save AIDS.

“TB is a huge problem,” said Tadataka Yamada, president of global health programs for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. “It’s a problem that in some ways has been suppressed. We often don’t talk about it.”

Ineffective treatment has led to multi-drug resistant forms, or MDR-TB. Scarier still is XDR-TB, which stands for extensively drug resistant TB. That is what Mr. Hakobyan has. There were only 83 cases of XDR-TB reported in the United States from 1993 to 2007, but it could strike with a vengeance.

“We always think we live in a protected world because of modern medicines and the like,” Dr. Yamada said. “But if we get a big problem with XDR, we could be in a situation like we had in the 19th century when we didn’t have good treatments.”

If we were facing an equivalent military threat capable of killing untold numbers of Americans, there might be presidential commissions and tens of billions of dollars in appropriations, not to mention magazine cover stories. But with public health threats, we all drop the ball.

Because of this complacency about TB, there hasn’t been enough investment in treatments and diagnostics, although some new medication is on the horizon.

“Amazingly, the most widely used TB diagnostic is a 19th-century one, and it’s as lousy as you might imagine,” said Dr. Paul Farmer, the Harvard public health expert whose Partners in Health organization was among the first to call attention to the dangers of drug-resistant TB.

In Armenia, the only program for drug-resistant TB, overseen by Doctors Without Borders, can accept only 15 percent of the patients who need it. And the drugs often are unable to help them.

“After two years of treatment with toxic drugs, less than half of such chronic TB patients are cured, and that’s very demoralizing,” noted Stobdan Kalon, the medical coordinator for Doctors Without Borders here. And anyone who thinks that drug-resistant TB will stay in places like Armenia is in denial. If it isn’t defused, Mr. Hakobyan’s XDR time bomb could send shrapnel flying into your neighborhood.

He’s absolutely right.  Here’s The Moustache of Wisdom:

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Tom Brokaw’s book “The Greatest Generation,” that classic about our parents and their incredible sacrifices during World War II. What I’ve been thinking about actually is this: What book will our kids write about us? “The Greediest Generation?” “The Complacent Generation?” Or maybe: “The Subprime Generation: How My Parents Bailed Themselves Out for Their Excesses by Charging It All on My Visa Card.”

Our kids should be so much more radical than they are today. I understand why they aren’t. They’re so worried about just getting a job or paying next semester’s tuition. But we must not take their quietism as license to do whatever we want with this bailout cash. They are going to have to pay this money back. And therefore, we have an incredibly weighty obligation to make sure that we not only spend every stimulus dollar wisely but also with an eye to creating new technologies.

We not only need to bail out industries of the past but to build up industries of the future — to offer the kind of big thinking and risk-taking that transforms enormous challenges into world-changing opportunities. That is what made the Greatest Generation great. This money can’t just go to patch up our jalopies.

“Remember, this money will not be neutral,” said Andy Karsner, a former U.S. assistant secretary of energy. “We are talking about directing an unprecedented volume of cash at our housing, energy, transportation and infrastructure industries. This cash will either fortify the incumbent players and calcify the energy status quo, or it will facilitate the economic transformation we seek. The stimulus will either be white blood cells that will heal us or malignant cells that will continue to sap our strength.”

Let’s get specific. When it comes to Detroit, my views are clear: I think we should be talking about “bail,” not “bailouts,” regarding the people running the Big Three car companies and the lawmakers who mindlessly protected them for so long. Still, I do not want to see jobs destroyed. But if taxpayers are going to give Detroit money, we must not entrust the spending to people who have run their businesses into the ground.

You want my tax dollars? Then I want to see the precise production plans and timetables for the hybridization of all your cars and trucks within 36 months. I want every bailed-out car company to move to hybrid electric drive trains, because nothing would both improve mileage and emissions more — and also stimulate a whole new 21st-century, job-creating industry: batteries.

Big batteries that can store electricity for transportation and wind and solar generation are the indispensable enablers of the Energy Internet of the future. Any Detroit bailout has to serve that goal.

A major electrification of drive trains in U.S.-made vehicles “would induce explosive growth and investment in a domestic battery business,” said Karsner. Europe, Japan and China are already dominating this industry. It’s the key to clean-tech — and ultimately our national competitiveness. We can’t allow ourselves to be battery importers in the 21st century the way we were oil importers in the 20th.

The same applies to Barack Obama’s plans for a green stimulus in energy efficiency and infrastructure. It makes no sense to spend money on green infrastructure — or a bailout of Detroit aimed at stimulating production of more fuel-efficient cars — if it is not combined with a tax on carbon that would actually change consumer buying behavior.

Many people will tell Mr. Obama that taxing carbon or gasoline now is a “nonstarter.” Wrong. It is the only starter. It is the game-changer. If you want to know where postponing it has gotten us, visit Detroit. No carbon tax or increased gasoline tax meant that every time the price of gasoline went down to $1 or $2 a gallon, consumers went back to buying gas guzzlers. And Detroit just fed their addictions — so it never committed to a real energy-efficiency retooling of its fleet. R.I.P.

If Mr. Obama is going to oversee a successful infrastructure stimulus, then it has to include not only a tax on carbon — make it revenue-neutral and rebate it all by reducing payroll taxes — but also new standards that gradually require utilities and home builders in states that receive money to build dramatically more energy-efficient power plants, commercial buildings and homes. This, too, would create whole new industries.

Let us not mince words: The Obama presidency will be shaped in many ways by how it spends this stimulus. I am sure he will articulate the right goals. But if the means — the price signals, conditions and standards — that he imposes on his stimulus are not as creative, bold and tough as his goals, it will all be for naught.

In sum, our kids will remember the Obama stimulus as either the burden of their lifetime or the investment of their lifetime. Let’s hope it’s the latter. I like that book title much better.

And now here’s Mr. Rich:

In 1992, David Halberstam wrote a new introduction for the 20th-anniversary edition of “The Best and the Brightest,” his classic history of the hubristic J.F.K. team that would ultimately mire America in Vietnam. He noted that the book’s title had entered the language, but not quite as he had hoped. “It is often misused,” he wrote, “failing to carry the tone or irony that the original intended.”

Halberstam died last year, but were he still around, I suspect he would be speaking up, loudly, right about now. As Barack Obama rolls out his cabinet, “the best and the brightest” has become the accolade du jour from Democrats (Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri), Republicans (Senator John Warner of Virginia) and the press (George Stephanopoulos). Few seem to recall that the phrase, in its original coinage, was meant to strike a sardonic, not a flattering, note. Perhaps even Doris Kearns Goodwin would agree that it’s time for Beltway reading groups to move on from “Team of Rivals” to Halberstam.

The stewards of the Vietnam fiasco had pedigrees uncannily reminiscent of some major Obama appointees. McGeorge Bundy, the national security adviser, was, as Halberstam put it, “a legend in his time at Groton, the brightest boy at Yale, dean of Harvard College at a precocious age.” His deputy, Walt Rostow, “had always been a prodigy, always the youngest to do something,” whether at Yale, M.I.T. or as a Rhodes scholar. Robert McNamara, the defense secretary, was the youngest and highest paid Harvard Business School assistant professor of his era before making a mark as a World War II Army analyst, and, at age 44, becoming the first non-Ford to lead the Ford Motor Company.

The rest is history that would destroy the presidency of Lyndon Johnson and inflict grave national wounds that only now are healing.

In the Obama transition, our Clinton-fixated political culture has been hyperventilating mainly over the national security team, but that’s not what gives me pause. Hillary Clinton and Robert Gates were both wrong about the Iraq invasion, but neither of them were architects of that folly and both are far better known in recent years for consensus-building caution (at times to a fault in Clinton’s case) than arrogance. Those who fear an outbreak of Clintonian drama in the administration keep warning that Obama has hired a secretary of state he can’t fire. But why not take him at his word when he says “the buck will stop with me”? If Truman could cashier Gen. Douglas MacArthur, then surely Obama could fire a brand-name cabinet member in the (unlikely) event she goes rogue.

No, it’s the economic team that evokes trace memories of our dark best-and-brightest past. Lawrence Summers, the new top economic adviser, was the youngest tenured professor in Harvard’s history and is famous for never letting anyone forget his brilliance. It was his highhanded disregard for his own colleagues, not his impolitic remarks about gender and science, that forced him out of Harvard’s presidency in four years. Timothy Geithner, the nominee for Treasury secretary, is the boy wonder president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. He comes with none of Summers’s personal baggage, but his sparkling résumé is missing one crucial asset: experience outside academe and government, in the real world of business and finance. Postgraduate finishing school at Kissinger & Associates doesn’t count.

Summers and Geithner are both protégés of another master of the universe, Robert Rubin. His appearance in the photo op for Obama-transition economic advisers three days after the election was, to put it mildly, disconcerting. Ever since his acclaimed service as Treasury secretary in the Clinton administration, Rubin has labored as a senior adviser and director at Citigroup, now being bailed out by taxpayers to the potential tune of some $300 billion. Somehow the all-seeing Rubin didn’t notice the toxic mortgage-derivatives on Citi’s books until it was too late. The Citi may never sleep, but he snored.

Geithner was no less tardy in discovering the reckless, wholesale gambling that went on in Wall Street’s big casinos, all of which cratered while at least nominally under his regulatory watch. That a Hydra-headed banking monster like Citigroup came to be in the first place was a direct byproduct of deregulation championed by Rubin and Summers in Clinton’s Treasury Department (where Geithner also served). The New Deal reform they helped repeal, the Glass-Steagall Act, had been enacted in 1933 in part because Citigroup’s ancestor, National City Bank, had imploded after repackaging bad loans as toxic securities in the go-go 1920s.

Well, nobody’s perfect. Given that John McCain’s economic team was headlined by Carly Fiorina and Joe the Plumber, the country would be dodging a fiscal bullet even if Obama had picked Suze Orman. But I keep wondering why the honeymoon hagiography about the best and the brightest has been so over the top. Washington’s cheerleading for our new New Frontier cabinet superstars has seldom been interrupted by tough questions about Summers’s Harvard career or Geithner’s record at the Fed. For that, it’s best to turn to the business press: Andrew Ross Sorkin at The New York Times, for one, has been relentless in trying to ferret out Geithner’s opaque role in the catastrophic decision to let Lehman Brothers fail.

No doubt the Pavlovian ovations for the Obama team are in part a reaction to our immediate political past. After eight years of a presidency that valued cronyism over brains (or even competence) and embraced an anti-intellectualism apotheosized by Sarah Palin, it’s a godsend to have a president who puts a premium on merit. I also wonder if a press corps that underrated Obama’s political prowess for much of the campaign, demeaning him as a professorial wuss next to the brawny Clinton and McCain, is now overcompensating for that mistake. No one wants to miss out a second time on triumphal history in the making.

This, too, is a replay of what happened when Kennedy arrived, beating out the more seasoned Richard Nixon and ending eight years of Eisenhower rule. “Rarely had a new administration received such a sympathetic hearing at a personal level from the more serious and respected journalists of the city,” Halberstam wrote. “The good reporters of that era, those who were well educated and who were enlightened themselves and worked for enlightened organizations, liked the Kennedys and were for the same things the Kennedys were for.” They couldn’t imagine that “men who were said to be the ablest to serve in government in this century” would turn out to be architects of America’s “worst tragedy since the Civil War.”

Post-Iraq, we’re unlikely to rush into a new Vietnam. But we ignore the past’s lessons at our peril. In his 20th-anniversary reflections, Halberstam wrote that his favorite passage in his book was the one where Johnson, after his first Kennedy cabinet meeting, raved to his mentor, the speaker of the House, Sam Rayburn, about all the president’s brilliant men. “You may be right, and they may be every bit as intelligent as you say,” Rayburn responded, “but I’d feel a whole lot better about them if just one of them had run for sheriff once.”

Halberstam loved that story because it underlined the weakness of the Kennedy team: “the difference between intelligence and wisdom, between the abstract quickness and verbal facility which the team exuded, and true wisdom, which is the product of hard-won, often bitter experience.” That difference was clearly delineated in Vietnam, where American soldiers, officials and reporters could see that the war was going badly even as McNamara brusquely wielded charts and crunched numbers to enforce his conviction that victory was assured.

In our current financial quagmire, there have also been those who had the wisdom to sound alarms before Rubin, Summers or Geithner did. Among them were not just economists like Joseph Stiglitz and Nouriel Roubini but also Doris Dungey, a 47-year-old financial blogger known as Tanta, who died of cancer in Upper Marlboro, Md., last Sunday. As the Times obituary observed, “her first post, in December 2006, took issue with an optimistic Citigroup report that maintained that the mortgage industry would ‘rationalize’ in 2007, to the benefit of larger players like, well, Citigroup.” It was months before the others publicly echoed her judgment.

For some of J.F.K.’s best and brightest, Halberstam wrote, wisdom came “after Vietnam.” We have to hope that wisdom is coming to Summers and Geithner as they struggle with our financial Tet. Clearly it has not come to Rubin. Asked by The Times in April if he’d made any mistakes at Citigroup, he sounded as self-deluded as McNamara in retirement.

“I honestly don’t know,” Rubin answered. “In hindsight, there are a lot of things we’d do differently. But in the context of the facts as I knew them and my role, I’m inclined to think probably not.” Since that interview, 52,000 Citigroup employees have been laid off but not Rubin, who remains remorseless, collecting a salary that has totaled in excess of $115 million since 1999. You may be touched to hear that he is voluntarily relinquishing his bonus this Christmas.

Rubin hasn’t been seen in a transition photo op since Nov. 7, and in the end Obama chose Paul Volcker as chairman of his Economic Recovery Advisory Board. This was a presidential decision not only bright but wise.

Warner, Friedman, Egan and Kristof

October 26, 2008

Today the Times has opened the floodgates and we have 9 columnists, so I’m breaking them down into 2 sections.  Judith Warner writes about “No Ordinary Woman,” and says Sarah Palin is a woman who is able to be promoted on the kinds of attributes that were once the exclusive province of unremarkable white men.  I think by “unremarkable” she’s being polite and not saying “ignorant.”  She does have lovely manners.  Mr. Friedman ponders “If Larry and Sergey Asked for a Loan….” and suggests we can only grow our way out of this crisis — with more innovation and entrepreneurship, which create new businesses and better jobs.  Mr. Egan writes about “The Party of Yesterday,” and says Republicans have been insinuating for years that some of the brightest, most productive communities in the United States are fake American.  Mr. Kristof, in “The Endorsement From Hell,” says the endorsement of John McCain by a Web site linked to Al Qaeda isn’t a surprise. Four more years of blindness to nuance in the Muslim world is an excellent recruiting tool.  Here’s Ms. Warner:

In 1977, Bella Abzug, the former congresswoman and outspoken feminist, said, “Our struggle today is not to have a female Einstein get appointed as an assistant professor. It is for a woman schlemiel to get as quickly promoted as a male schlemiel.”

In other words: women will truly have arrived when the most mediocre among us will be able to do just as well as the most mediocre of men.

By this standard, the watershed event for women this year was not Hillary Clinton’s near ascendancy to the top of the Democratic ticket, but Sarah Palin’s nomination as the Republicans’ No. 2.

For Clinton was a lifelong overachiever, a star in a generational vanguard who clearly took to heart the maxim that women “must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good,” and in so doing divorced herself from the world of the merely average. In that, she was not unlike Barack Obama — taxed by his race to be twice as reassuring, twice as un-angry, twice as presidential as any white candidate.

Mediocrity, after all, is the privilege of those who have arrived.

Palin is a woman who has risen to national prominence without, apparently, even remotely being twice as good as her male competitors. On the contrary, her claim to fame lies in her repudiation of Clinton-type exceptionalism.

She speaks no better — and no worse — than many of her crowd-pleasing male peers, dropping her g’s, banishing “who” in favor of “that,” issuing verbal blunders that linger just long enough to make their mark in the public mind before they’re winked away in staged apologies.

She is a woman who is able to not only get by but also be quickly promoted on the kinds of attributes that were once the exclusive province of unremarkable white men: rapport, the right looks or connections, an easy sort of familiarity.

In the days leading up to Palin’s pick as vice-presidential nominee, according to an article in The New York Times Magazine today, Rick Davis, who is John McCain’s campaign manager, said a friend had told him how best to choose a running mate: “You get a frame of Time magazine, and you put the pictures of the people in that frame. You look at who fits that frame best — that’s your V.P.”

Donny Deutsch, the ad executive turned talk show host, put it less elegantly on CNBC right after the Republican convention. “Women want to be her, men want to mate with her,” he said, describing Palin as a “new creation that the feminist movement has not figured out in 40 years.”

And this was the crux of the Palin Phenomenon: she was a breakthrough woman who threatened no one.

The McCain crowd would have you believe that Palin is the perfect representation of the post-feminist woman, a candidate whose very existence marks the end of feminism — of the old “liberal feminist agenda,” as McCain himself has put it — and the start of a more global kind of triumph for the great mass of women.

Just as some young women in recent years have argued that appearing topless on “Girls Gone Wild” is an act of sexual liberation, putting an untested Alaskan governor on the road to the White House was spun as a sign of the arrival of real, hot-blooded women into the mainstream of power.

But the finer points of what it takes for real women to make progress in seizing power don’t seem much to trouble Palin.

“Someone called me a ‘redneck woman’ once, and you know what I said back? ‘Why, thank you,’” she told the country singer Gretchen Wilson at a recent Republican rally.

I guess Palin has never seen Wilson’s “Redneck Woman” music video, which, in addition to images of an attractive Wilson driving a variety of fuel-inefficient vehicles, features a couple of stripper-styled babes dancing in cages, one of which is made of chains.

With her five children, successful political career, $1.2 million net worth and beauty pageant looks, Sarah Palin is really not an average woman, much less the worthy schlemiel envisioned by Abzug. She’s actually, as Colin Powell carefully said, quite “distinguished” — for her looks, her grace and charm, her ability to connect with an audience, her ambition and her drive. Those are admirable, even enviable qualities. But the American public, defecting from the McCain ticket in a slow bleed, is clearly not convinced that they amount to vice-presidential qualifications.

Seems like “real America” wants something more than a wife, mother or girlfriend in a female political leader.

Maybe we’ve come a long way after all.

But, but, but Wee Billy Kristol thinks she’s da bomb…  Here’s Mr. Friedman:

The hardest thing about analyzing the Bush administration is this: Some things are true even if George Bush believes them.

Therefore, sifting through all his steps and missteps, at home and abroad, and trying to sort out what is crazy and what might actually be true — even though George Bush believes it — presents an enormous challenge, particularly amid this economic crisis.

I felt that very strongly when listening to President Bush and Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson announce that the government was going to become a significant shareholder in the country’s major banks. Both Bush and Paulson were visibly reluctant to be taking this step. It would be easy to scoff at them and say: “What do you expect from a couple of capitalists who hate any kind of government intervention in the market?”

But we should reflect on their reluctance. There may be an important message in their grimaces. The government had to step in and shore up the balance sheets of our major banks. But the question I am asking myself, and I think Paulson and Bush were asking themselves, is this: “What will this government intervention do to the risk-taking that is at the heart of capitalism?”

There is a fine line between risk-taking and recklessness. Risk-taking drives innovation; recklessness drives over a cliff. In recent years, we had way too much of the latter. We are paying a huge price for that, and we need a correction. But how do we do that without becoming so risk-averse that start-ups and emerging economies can’t get capital because banks with the government as a shareholder become exceedingly cautious.

Let’s imagine this scene: You are the president of one of these banks in which the government has taken a position. One day two young Stanford grads walk in your door. One is named Larry, and the other is named Sergey. They each are wearing jeans and a T-shirt. They tell you that they have this thing called a “search engine,” and they are naming it — get this — “Google.” They tell you to type in any word in this box on a computer screen and — get this — hit a button labeled “I’m Feeling Lucky.” Up comes a bunch of Web sites related to that word. Their start-up, which they are operating out of their dorm room, has exhausted its venture capital. They need a loan.

What are you going to say to Larry and Sergey as the president of the bank? “Boys, this is very interesting. But I have the U.S. Treasury as my biggest shareholder today, and if you think I’m going to put money into something called ‘Google,’ with a key called ‘I’m Feeling Lucky,’ you’re fresh outta luck. Can you imagine me explaining that to a Congressional committee if you guys go bust?”

And then what happens if the next day the congressman from Palo Alto, who happens to be on the House banking committee, calls you, the bank president, and says: “I understand you turned down my boys, Larry and Sergey. Maybe you haven’t been told, but I am one of your shareholders — and right now, I’m not feeling very lucky. You get my drift?”

Maybe nothing like this will ever happen. Maybe it’s just my imagination. But maybe not …

“Government bailouts and guarantees, while at times needed, always come with unintended consequences,” notes the financial strategist David Smick. “The winners: the strong, the big, the established, the domestic and the safe — the folks who, relatively speaking, don’t need the money. The losers: the new, the small, the foreign and the risky — emerging markets, entrepreneurs and small businesses not politically connected. After all, what banker in a Capitol Hill hearing now would want to defend a loan to an emerging market? Yet emerging economies are the big markets for American exports.”

Don’t get me wrong. I am not criticizing the decision to shore up the banks. And we must prevent a repeat of the reckless bundling and securitizing of mortgages, and excessive leveraging, that started this mess. We need better regulation. But most of all, we need better management.

The banks that are surviving the best today, the ones that are buying others and not being bought — like JPMorgan Chase or Banco Santander, based in Spain — are not surviving because they were better regulated than the banks across the street but because they were better run. Their leaders were more vigilant about their risk exposure than any regulator required them to be.

Bottom line: We must not overshoot in regulating the markets just because they overshot in their risk-taking. That’s what markets do. We need to fix capitalism, not install socialism. Because, ultimately, we can’t bail our way out of this crisis. We can only grow our way out — with more innovation and entrepreneurship, which create new businesses and better jobs.

So let’s keep our eyes on the prize. Save the system, install smart regulations and get the government out of the banking business as soon as possible so that the surviving banks can freely and unabashedly get back into their business: risk-taking without recklessness.

Here’s Mr. Egan, writing from Seattle:

Two years ago, a list of the nation’s brainiest cities was put together from Census Bureau reports — that is, cities with the highest percentage of college graduates, which is not the same as smart, of course.

These are vibrant, prosperous places where a knowledge economy and cool things to do after hours attract people from all over the country. Among the top 10, only two of those metro areas — Raleigh, N.C., and Lexington, Ky. — voted Republican in the 2004 presidential election.

This year, all 10 are likely to go Democratic. What’s more, with Colorado, New Hampshire and Virginia now trending blue, Republicans stand to lose the nation’s 10 best-educated states as well.

It would be easy to say these places are not the real America, in the peculiar us-and-them parlance of Sarah Palin. It’s easy to say because Republicans have been insinuating for years now that some of the brightest, most productive communities in the United States are fake American — a tactic that dates to Newt Gingrich’s reign in the capitol.

Brainy cities have low divorce rates, low crime, high job creation, ethnic diversity and creative capitalism. They’re places like Pittsburgh, with its top-notch universities; Albuquerque, with its surging Latino middle class; and Denver, with its outdoor-loving young people. They grow good people in the smart cities.

But in the politically suicidal greenhouse that Republicans have constructed for themselves, these cities are not welcome. They are disparaged as nests of latte-sipping weenies, alt-lifestyle types and “other” Americans, somehow inauthentic.

If that’s what Republicans want, they are doomed to be the party of yesterday.

Not only are we becoming more urban as a nation, but we’re headed for an ethnic muddle that could further shrink the party of small-mindedness. By 2023, more than half of all American children will be minority, the Census Bureau projects.

Ronald Reagan was lashed by liberals for running a “Morning in America” campaign, but he knew this country, at heart, was always tomorrow-looking — and he fared very well in educated cities as well as small towns. “Whatever else history may say about me when I’m gone,” said Reagan, “I hope it will record that I appealed to your best hopes, not your worst fears.” Barack Obama, who brings that music to the stage, leads by 30 points on the “hope and optimism” question in polls.

Spurning the Reagan lesson, John McCain made a fatal error in turning his campaign over to the audience of Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. In so doing, he chose the unbearable lightness of being Sarah Palin, trotted out Paris Hilton and labeled Obama a socialist who associates with terrorists.

At a recent Palin rally, the crowd started chanting, “We want Fox!” McCain has given them just that. But how isolated and out-of-touch is this audience? At the end of each debate, a sure-fire way to decide who won was to look at the Fox viewers poll — typically showing a landslide for McCain. Within a day, scientific surveys found big wins for Obama.

Whether Americans are real or fake, they can see through Palin, a woman who couldn’t correctly answer a third grader a few days ago when asked to explain the duties of vice president. Somewhere, between the shuffling to costume and accessorize Palin with a $150,000 wardrobe, her handlers never handed her a copy of the Constitution.

Republicans blow off the smart cities with the counterargument that they win the exurbs — the frontier of new homes, young families and the fresh middle class. And it’s true, in 2004, George Bush won 97 of the 100 fastest-growing counties in America.

That will not happen this year. Polls show McCain is losing 20 percent of self-described moderate Republicans. And new registration figures and other polls indicate that Obama will likely win such iconic exurban centers as Washoe County, Nev., Loudoun County, Va., and Wake County, N.C.

But in the kind of pattern that has held true since McCain went over to the stupid side, his brother recently referred to suburban northern Virginia as “communist country” and a top adviser, Nancy Pfotenhauer, said it was not “real Virginia.”

Here in Seattle, it’s become a one-party city, with a congressman for life and nodding-head liberals who seldom challenge a tax-loving city government. It would be nice, just to keep the philosophical debate sharp, if there were a few thoughtful Republicans around.

That won’t happen so long as Republicans continue to be the party of yesterday. They’ve written the cities off. Fake Americans don’t count, but this Election Day, for once, they will not feel left out.

And now here’s Mr. Kristof:

John McCain isn’t boasting about a new endorsement, one of the very, very few he has received from overseas. It came a few days ago:

“Al Qaeda will have to support McCain in the coming election,” read a commentary on a password-protected Islamist Web site that is closely linked to Al Qaeda and often disseminates the group’s propaganda.

The endorsement left the McCain campaign sputtering, and noting helplessly that Hamas appears to prefer Barack Obama. Al Qaeda’s apparent enthusiasm for Mr. McCain is manifestly not reciprocated.

“The transcendent challenge of our time [is] the threat of radical Islamic terrorism,” Senator McCain said in a major foreign policy speech this year, adding, “Any president who does not regard this threat as transcending all others does not deserve to sit in the White House.”

That’s a widespread conservative belief. Mitt Romney compared the threat of militant Islam to that from Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union. Some conservative groups even marked “Islamofascism Awareness Week” earlier this month.

Yet the endorsement of Mr. McCain by a Qaeda-affiliated Web site isn’t a surprise to security specialists. Richard Clarke, the former White House counterterrorism director, and Joseph Nye, the former chairman of the National Intelligence Council, have both suggested that Al Qaeda prefers Mr. McCain and might even try to use terror attacks in the coming days to tip the election to him.

“From their perspective, a continuation of Bush policies is best for recruiting,” said Professor Nye, adding that Mr. McCain is far more likely to continue those policies.

An American president who keeps troops in Iraq indefinitely, fulminates about Islamic terrorism, inclines toward military solutions and antagonizes other nations is an excellent recruiting tool. In contrast, an African-American president with a Muslim grandfather and a penchant for building bridges rather than blowing them up would give Al Qaeda recruiters fits.

During the cold war, the American ideological fear of communism led us to mistake every muddle-headed leftist for a Soviet pawn. Our myopia helped lead to catastrophe in Vietnam.

In the same way today, an exaggerated fear of “Islamofascism” elides a complex reality and leads us to overreact and damage our own interests. Perhaps the best example is one of the least-known failures in Bush administration foreign policy: Somalia.

Today, Somalia is the world’s greatest humanitarian disaster, worse even than Darfur or Congo. The crisis has complex roots, and Somali warlords bear primary blame. But Bush administration paranoia about Islamic radicals contributed to the disaster.

Somalia has been in chaos for many years, but in 2006 an umbrella movement called the Islamic Courts Union seemed close to uniting the country. The movement included both moderates and extremists, but it constituted the best hope for putting Somalia together again. Somalis were ecstatic at the prospect of having a functional government again.

Bush administration officials, however, were aghast at the rise of an Islamist movement that they feared would be uncooperative in the war on terror. So they gave Ethiopia, a longtime rival in the region, the green light to invade, and Somalia’s best hope for peace collapsed.

“A movement that looked as if it might end this long national nightmare was derailed, in part because of American and Ethiopian actions,” said Ken Menkhaus, a Somalia expert at Davidson College. As a result, Islamic militancy and anti-Americanism have surged, partly because Somalis blame Washington for the brutality of the Ethiopian occupiers.

“There’s a level of anti-Americanism in Somalia today like nothing I’ve seen over the last 20 years,” Professor Menkhaus said. “Somalis are furious with us for backing the Ethiopian intervention and occupation, provoking this huge humanitarian crisis.”

Patrick Duplat, an expert on Somalia at Refugees International, the Washington-based advocacy group, says that during his last visit to Somalia, earlier this year, a local mosque was calling for jihad against America — something he had never heard when he lived peacefully in Somalia during the rise of the Islamic Courts Union.

“The situation has dramatically taken a turn for the worse,” he said. “The U.S. chose a very confrontational route early on. Who knows what would have happened if the U.S. had reached out to moderates? But that might have averted the disaster we’re in today.”

The greatest catastrophe is the one endured by ordinary Somalis who now must watch their children starve. But America’s own strategic interests have also been gravely damaged.

The only winner has been Islamic militancy. That’s probably the core reason why Al Qaeda militants prefer a McCain presidency: four more years of blindness to nuance in the Muslim world would be a tragedy for Americans and virtually everyone else, but a boon for radical groups trying to recruit suicide bombers.

Here endeth Part I of the day’s columnists.