Archive for the ‘Rich’ Category

Dowd, Kristof and Rich

March 13, 2011

The Moustache of Wisdom is off today, maybe back to flogging his book.  MoDo is angry.  MoDo is pissed.  MoDo has gone “In Search of Monsters,” and says Paul Wolfowitz has lost the right to be moral arbiter on matters of war. He just doesn’t know it.  Mr. Kristof says we should “Pay Teachers More,” and has a question:  Remember when public schools paid almost as well as law firms?  Mr. Rich, in “Confessions of a Recovering Op-Ed Columnist,” discusses how he came to be a columnist for The Times 17 years ago, and why he decided to move on.  Here’s MoDo:

The Iraq war hawks urging intervention in Libya are confident that there’s no way Libya could ever be another Iraq.

Of course, they never thought Iraq would be Iraq, either.

All President Obama needs to do, Paul Wolfowitz asserts, is man up, arm the Libyan rebels, support setting up a no-fly zone and wait for instant democracy.

It’s a cakewalk.

Didn’t we arm the rebels in Afghanistan in the ’80s? And didn’t many become Taliban and end up turning our own weapons on us? And didn’t one mujahadeen from Saudi Arabia, Osama bin Laden, go on to lead Al Qaeda?

So that worked out well.

Even now, with our deficit and military groaning from two wars in Muslim countries, interventionists on the left and the right insist it’s our duty to join the battle in a third Muslim country.

“It is both morally right and in America’s strategic interest to enable the Libyans to fight for themselves,” Wolfowitz wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece.

You would think that a major architect of the disastrous wars and interminable occupations in Afghanistan and Iraq would have the good manners to shut up and take up horticulture. But the neo-con naif has no shame.

After all, as Defense Secretary Robert Gates told West Point cadets last month, “In my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined,’ as General MacArthur so delicately put it.”

Gates boldly batted back the Cakewalk Brigade — which includes John McCain, Joe Lieberman and John Kerry — bluntly telling Congress last week: “Let’s just call a spade a spade. A no-fly zone begins with an attack on Libya to destroy the air defenses. That’s the way you do a no-fly zone. And then you can fly planes around the country and not worry about our guys being shot down. But that’s the way it starts.”

Wolfowitz, Rummy’s No. 2 in W.’s War Department, pushed to divert attention from Afghanistan and move on to Iraq; he pressed the canards that Saddam and Osama were linked and that we were in danger from Saddam’s phantom W.M.D.s; he promised that the Iraq invasion would end quickly and gleefully; he slapped back Gen. Eric Shinseki when he said securing Iraq would require several hundred thousand troops; and he claimed that rebuilding Iraq would be paid for with Iraqi oil revenues.

How wrong, deceptive and deadly can you be and still get to lecture President Obama on his moral obligations?

Wolfowitz was driven to invade Iraq and proselytize for the Libyan rebels partly because of his guilt over how the Bush I administration coldly deserted the Shiites and Kurds who were urged to rise up against Saddam at the end of the 1991 gulf war. Saddam sent out helicopters to slaughter thousands. (A NATO no-fly zone did not stop that.)

Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi is also monstrous, slaughtering civilians and hiring mercenaries to kill rebels.

It’s hard to know how to proceed, but in his rush, Wolfowitz never even seems to have a good understanding of the tribal thickets he wants America to wade into. In Foreign Affairs, Frederic Wehrey notes that “for four decades Libya has been largely terra incognita … ‘like throwing darts at balloons in a dark room,’ as one senior Western diplomat put it to me.”

Leslie Gelb warns in The Daily Beast that no doubt some rebels are noble fighters, but some “could turn out to be thugs, thieves, and would-be new dictators. Surely, some will be Islamic extremists. One or more might turn into another Col. Qaddafi after gaining power. Indeed, when the good colonel led the Libyan coup in 1969, many right-thinking Westerners thought him to be a modernizing democrat.”

Reformed interventionist David Rieff, who wrote the book “At the Point of a Gun,” which criticizes “the messianic dream of remaking the world in either the image of American democracy or of the legal utopias of international human rights law,” told me that after Iraq: “America doesn’t have the credibility to make war in the Arab world. Our touch in this is actually counterproductive.”

He continued: “Qaddafi is a terrible man, but I don’t think it’s the business of the United States to overthrow him. Those who want America to support democratic movements and insurrections by force if necessary wherever there’s a chance of them succeeding are committing the United States to endless wars of altruism. And that’s folly.”

He quotes John Quincy Adams about America: “Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy … she is the champion and vindicator only of her own.”

As for Wolfowitz, Rieff notes drily, “He should have stayed a mathematician.”

Here’s Mr. Kristof:

From the debates in Wisconsin and elsewhere about public sector unions, you might get the impression that we’re going bust because teachers are overpaid.

That’s a pernicious fallacy. A basic educational challenge is not that teachers are raking it in, but that they are underpaid. If we want to compete with other countries, and chip away at poverty across America, then we need to pay teachers more so as to attract better people into the profession.

Until a few decades ago, employment discrimination perversely strengthened our teaching force. Brilliant women became elementary school teachers, because better jobs weren’t open to them. It was profoundly unfair, but the discrimination did benefit America’s children.

These days, brilliant women become surgeons and investment bankers — and 47 percent of America’s kindergarten through 12th-grade teachers come from the bottom one-third of their college classes (as measured by SAT scores). The figure is from a study by McKinsey & Company, “Closing the Talent Gap.”

Changes in relative pay have reinforced the problem. In 1970, in New York City, a newly minted teacher at a public school earned about $2,000 less in salary than a starting lawyer at a prominent law firm. These days the lawyer takes home, including bonus, $115,000 more than the teacher, the McKinsey study found.

We all understand intuitively the difference a great teacher makes. I think of Juanita Trantina, who left my fifth-grade class intoxicated with excitement for learning and fascinated by the current events she spoke about. You probably have a Miss Trantina in your own past.

One Los Angeles study found that having a teacher from the 25 percent most effective group of teachers for four years in a row would be enough to eliminate the black-white achievement gap.

Recent scholarship suggests that good teachers, even kindergarten teachers, increase their students’ earnings many years later. Eric A. Hanushek of Stanford University found that an excellent teacher (one a standard deviation better than average, or better than 84 percent of teachers) raises each student’s lifetime earnings by $20,000. If there are 20 students in the class, that is an extra $400,000 generated, compared with a teacher who is merely average.

A teacher better than 93 percent of other teachers would add $640,000 to lifetime pay of a class of 20, the study found.

Look, I’m not a fan of teachers’ unions. They used their clout to gain job security more than pay, thus making the field safe for low achievers. Teaching work rules are often inflexible, benefits are generous relative to salaries, and it is difficult or impossible to dismiss teachers who are ineffective.

But none of this means that teachers are overpaid. And if governments nibble away at pensions and reduce job security, then they must pay more in wages to stay even.

Moreover, part of compensation is public esteem. When governors mock teachers as lazy, avaricious incompetents, they demean the profession and make it harder to attract the best and brightest. We should be elevating teachers, not throwing darts at them.

Consider three other countries renowned for their educational performance: Singapore, South Korea and Finland. In each country, teachers are drawn from the top third of their cohort, are hugely respected and are paid well (although that’s less true in Finland). In South Korea and Singapore, teachers on average earn more than lawyers and engineers, the McKinsey study found.

“We’re not going to get better teachers unless we pay them more,” notes Amy Wilkins of the Education Trust, an education reform organization. Likewise, Jeanne Allen of the Center for Education Reform says, “We’re the first people to say, throw them $100,000, throw them whatever it takes.”

Both Ms. Wilkins and Ms. Allen add in the next breath that pay should be for performance, with more rigorous evaluation. That makes sense to me.

Starting teacher pay, which now averages $39,000, would have to rise to $65,000 to fill most new teaching positions in high-needs schools with graduates from the top third of their classes, the McKinsey study found. That would be a bargain.

Indeed, it makes sense to cut corners elsewhere to boost teacher salaries. Research suggests that students would benefit from a tradeoff of better teachers but worse teacher-student ratios. Thus there are growing calls for a Japanese model of larger classes, but with outstanding, respected, well-paid teachers.

Teaching is unusual among the professions in that it pays poorly but has strong union protections and lockstep wage increases. It’s a factory model of compensation, and critics are right to fault it. But the bottom line is that we should pay teachers more, not less — and that politicians who falsely lambaste teachers as greedy are simply making it more difficult to attract the kind of above-average teachers our above-average children deserve.

And now here’s Mr. Rich’s farewell column:

The first political columnist I ever encountered, after a fashion, was Walter Lippmann. It happened on a snowy afternoon when I was a kid of 11 or 12 growing up in Washington during the J.F.K. years. My wallet had somehow slipped out of my pocket as I trudged past the National Cathedral on my way home from school. Hours later, my mother barged into my bedroom, interrupting my full-scale sulk to announce a miracle. “I just got a call from Walter Lippmann’s maid,” she said, sounding more excited than the circumstances warranted. “They found your wallet on Woodley Road in front of Walter Lippmann’s house!

My starry-eyed mom then explained to me who this giant was. Fairly soon I would discover some of his colleagues’ bylines in the newspapers I was starting to devour: Arthur Krock, Joseph Alsop, Joseph Kraft, James J. Kilpatrick, Evans and Novak, Drew Pearson. Eventually I’d figure out that my stepfather, a K Street lawyer before they were called “K Street lawyers,” fed scabrous off-the-record tidbits about his dealings on the Hill to Pearson’s column in exchange for favors I now dread to imagine.

By the time I reached high school, Vietnam was heating up. I began tracking the columnists’ pronouncements with some ardor. This was, of course, in the day when everyone read the papers, when pundits had yet to start bloviating on television, and when it was widely believed, especially in Washington, that the wise men of the press held enormous sway over national events, from the making of presidents to the waging of wars both hot and cold.

I can’t say I aspired to be a columnist, however. My first love was the theater, and the first opinion writers I read religiously were the drama critics Walter Kerr and Kenneth Tynan. The political guys (almost all guys then) were too Olympian for my taste. But when, decades later, I was intent on ending my run as The Times’s drama critic after nearly 14 years as Kerr’s successor, an editor at the paper floated the notion of taking my highly opinionated self to the Op-Ed page. And so I leapt. I had written about politics on and off in my career, and had always been fascinated by the intersection of politics and culture. It had not been lost on me as a child that the Kennedy inaugural gala had been studded with stars from Broadway and Hollywood, and that the Rat Pack might have held even more sway over the White House than, say, Lippmann.

Now 17 more years have flown by, and, as you may have heard, I have decided to move on from Op-Ed columnizing (as Bill Safire called it) to a fresh adventure in journalism at New York magazine. It was a highly personal decision and I’ve been weighing it for some time.

My decision is no reflection on The Times. This paper remains a nonpareil platform for writing a column — not just for its readership, but also for its journalistic freedom. During my time on the page, the most frequent question I’ve been asked by readers is: Did The Times ever censor you, or try to censor you? The answer is no. The same, by the way, was true when my theater reviews regularly antagonized some of the paper’s biggest advertisers.

That’s just one of countless reasons I leave The Times feeling as reverent about it as I did when I arrived. Neither it nor any other institution is infallible, as was illustrated most recently during the run-up to the Iraq invasion. But The Times is our essential news organization, and more so now than ever, when so many others have dwindled in size, ambition and scope. Should anyone have even an iota of doubt about The Times’s crucial role in helping its readers navigate the tumult of the 21st century, just revisit its reportage from the roiling tempests of the Middle East in recent weeks. There is nothing like it in American journalism, and that will still be the case whether you read The Times on paper or get it beamed directly into your brain once Apple unleashes that app.

Being a columnist at a place like this can be exhilarating. But not because the job is as influential as some loyal Times readers still seem to think. A columnist’s clout may well have been overstated even in Lippmann’s heyday, but it has certainly dimmed in an age when everyone can and does broadcast opinions on the Web, Facebook or Twitter, let alone in print, or on cable or radio. No opinionator in any of these media could prevent the war in Iraq or derail the rise of Sarah Palin. Nor did pundits create phenomena like Barack Obama or the Tea Party. The forces of history are far bigger than any of a democracy’s individual voices, however loud or widely disseminated. That’s one reason America is so thrilling to write about.

For me, anyway, the point of opinion writing is less to try to shape events, a presumptuous and foolhardy ambition at best, than to help stimulate debate and, from my particular perspective, try to explain why things got the way they are and what they might mean and where they might lead. My own idiosyncratic bent as a writer, no doubt a legacy of my years spent in the theater, is to look for a narrative in the many competing dramas unfolding on the national stage. I do have strong political views, but opinions are cheap. Anyone could be a critic of the Bush administration. The challenge as a writer was to try to figure out why it governed the way it did — and how it got away with it for so long — and, dare I say it, to have fun chronicling each new outrage.

When I felt frustrated by churning out a standard-length Op-Ed column after a few years, The Times went out of its way to accommodate me by giving me more space, all the better for trying to connect more dots. It was fated that I would one day find myself eager to break out of that box too. I have always wanted to keep growing as a writer, not run in place. My latest bout of restlessness had nothing to do with the tumultuous upheavals of the news business in the digital era. It was an old-media mission I started to chafe at — opinion writing within the constraints of newspaper deadlines and formats.

Safire, a master of the form, was fond of likening column writing to standing under a windmill: No sooner did you feel relief that you had ducked a blade than you looked up and saw a new one coming down. He thrived on this, but after 17 years I didn’t like what the relentless production of a newspaper column was doing to my writing. That routine can push you to have stronger opinions than you actually have, or contrived opinions about subjects you may not care deeply about, or to run roughshod over nuance to reach an unambiguous conclusion. Believe it or not, an opinion writer can sometimes get sick of his own voice.

I found myself hungering to write with more reflection, at greater length at times, in a wider and perhaps experimental variety of forms (whether in print or online), and without feeling at the mercy of the often hysterical exigencies of the 24/7 modern news cycle. While some columnists are adept at keeping their literary bearings over long careers — George Will is a particularly elegant survivor among the generation of columnists ahead of mine — those who stay too long risk turning bland or shrill. I wanted to quit before I succumbed, and spent a year talking to friends in journalism to figure out what was the best road for me to take next. Perhaps inevitably I ended up reunited with Adam Moss, who, before taking over New York seven years ago, served as editor of The Times Magazine, where he did more than anyone to push me beyond arts criticism into a broader beat.

It’s not easy to leave a home like The Times, where so many friends and brilliant colleagues remain. I am grateful to all of them, as well as to a pair of unexpected collaborators, the artists Seymour Chwast and Barry Blitt, whose inspired drawings took on an Op-Ed life of their own. My gratitude to The Times’s omnivorous, demanding, quarrelsome readership is no less enormous. Even when Times readers despise every last piece you write — and they do tell you so — they make you want to try harder. I hope I’ll meet up with many of you at the next stop.

Of all the things I’ve done at The Times, there may be none I’m prouder of than, in my critic’s days, championing “Sunday in the Park with George,” Stephen Sondheim’s and James Lapine’s 1984 musical about two artists in two different eras restless to create something new. For a quarter-century now, the show’s climactic song has inspired countless people in all walks of life when the time has come to take a leap. “Stop worrying where you’re going,” the Sondheim lyric goes. “Move on.”

 

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Dowd, Kristof and Rich

February 27, 2011

The Moustache of Wisdom is off again, I presume on his on-again-off-again book tour.  MoDo has two questions:  “Have You Driven a Smartphone Lately?” in which she asks the following:  If you can chew gum and walk, can you drive and tweet?  No.  You should turn off your goddamn cell phone while you’re driving.  I don’t need you to kill me because you’re having a fight with your girlfriend.  Mr. Kristof, in “Unfit for Democracy?,” says don’t tell people dying for freedom in the Arab world that they’re not ready for it.  Especially not when they’re donating pizza to the folks in Madison.  Mr. Rich also has a question:  “Why Wouldn’t the Tea Party Shut It Down?”  He says this battle, ostensibly over the deficit, is so much larger than the sum of its line-item parts.  It’s no more about the deficit than I’m the Queen of England.  Here’s MoDo, who’s in Detroit:

I’m barreling along a rural Michigan highway at 75 miles per hour in a gray Ford Taurus X when I glance down to check a number on a screen.

It can’t be more than two seconds, but when I look back up, I’m inches from plowing into a huge green truck. Panicked, I slam on the brakes.

Even though I’m in Virttex, the Ford simulator that uses virtual reality to give you the eerily real sensation that you’re flying down the highway past cars and barns, I still feel shaken.

I made the mistake of taking my eyes off the road for more than 1.5 seconds, which is the danger zone, according to technology experts at Ford headquarters.

Ford, Chrysler, Chevy and other car companies are betting on the proposition that, as long as your eyes don’t stray from the road for more than a moment, your other senses can enjoy a cornucopia of diversions on your dashboard.

I worried in a prior column that Ford cars with the elaborate and popular new “in-car connectivity” sounded like death traps. Ford Sync lets you sync up to apps, reading your Twitter feeds to you. MyFord Touch plays your iPod on demand and reads your texts to you — including emoticons — and allows you to choose one of 10 prewritten responses (“I’m on my way,” “I’m outside,” “O.K.”). It also has voice-activated 3-D navigation that allows you to merely announce “I’m hungry” or “Find Chinese restaurant.”

Your car can even help you with a bad mood by giving you ambient lighting, vibrating your seat or heating your steering wheel.

Ford executives invited me to Detroit to experience their snazzy new technology firsthand.

They are on the cusp of a system featuring the futuristic avatar Eva, the vaguely creepy face and voice of a woman on your dashboard who can read you your e-mail, update your schedule, recite articles from newspapers, guide you to the restaurant where you’re having lunch and recommend a selection from your iPod. Ford’s working on a Web browser, which would be locked while driving.

Remember when your car used to be a haven of peace from the world? Now it’s just a bigger, noisier and much more dangerously distracting smartphone.

Over lunch at Ford, Sue Cischke, a dynamic company executive, argued that even before cellphones and iPods, drivers were in danger of distraction from reaching for a briefcase or shooing away a bee.

“Telling younger people not to use a cellphone is almost like saying, ‘Don’t breathe,’ ” she said.

Given that Americans are addicted to Web access and tech toys, she said, it will never work to simply ban them. “So we’ve got to figure out how we make people safer,” she said, “and the more people can just talk to their car like they’re talking to a passenger, the more useful it would be.”

Given that, however, we’re talking about human beings who live in an A.D.D. world, wouldn’t it be safer to try to curb the addiction, rather than indulging it? Nobody thought you could get young people to pay for music after downloading it for free, either, but they do.

David Teater, a former market research consultant to auto manufacturers, lost his 12-year-old son in a distracted driving accident in Grand Rapids, Mich., seven years ago. A 20-year-old nanny driving her charge in her employer’s Hummer was so immersed in a cellphone call that she ran a red light and smashed into Teater’s wife’s Chevy Suburban. Now he works at the National Safety Council.

He says he doesn’t expect car companies — which are trying to make cars more seductive — to be arbiters of safety. “They were slow to move toward seat belts and airbags until we, the customer, said we want it,” he said. He sees the overwrought dashboards as trouble. “We can chew gum and walk, but we can’t do two cognitively demanding tasks simultaneously.”

Ray LaHood, the secretary of transportation, is livid about the dashboard bells and whistles. When he saw a Ford ad with a bubbly young woman named Kelly using the new souped-up system to gab on the phone hands-free and not paying attention to the road, he called Alan Mulally, the president and C.E.O of Ford.

“I said to him, ‘That girl looks so distracted, it belies belief that this is what you want in terms of safety,’ ” LaHood told me. “Putting entertainment centers in automobiles does not contribute to safe driving. When you’re trying to update your Facebook or put out a tweet, it’s a distraction.”

He said he would compile his own statistics, meet with car executives and use the bully pulpit. “We’ll see what the auto companies can do voluntarily and what we need to do otherwise,” he said. “I don’t think drivers should be doing any of that.”

Amen.  Here’s Mr. Kristof, who is still in Cairo:

Is the Arab world unready for freedom? A crude stereotype lingers that some people — Arabs, Chinese and Africans — are incompatible with democracy. Many around the world fret that “people power” will likely result in Somalia-style chaos, Iraq-style civil war or Iran-style oppression.

That narrative has been nourished by Westerners and, more sadly, by some Arab, Chinese and African leaders. So with much of the Middle East in an uproar today, let’s tackle a politically incorrect question head-on: Are Arabs too politically immature to handle democracy?

This concern is the subtext for much anxiety today, from Washington to Riyadh. And there’s no question that there are perils: the overthrow of the shah in Iran, of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, of Tito in Yugoslavia, all led to new oppression and bloodshed. Congolese celebrated the eviction of their longtime dictator in 1997, but the civil war since has been the most lethal conflict since World War II. If Libya becomes another Congo, if Bahrain becomes an Iranian satellite, if Egypt becomes controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood — well, in those circumstances ordinary citizens might end up pining for former oppressors.

“Before the revolution, we were slaves, and now we are the slaves of former slaves,” Lu Xun, the great Chinese writer, declared after the toppling of the Qing dynasty. Is that the future of the Middle East?

I don’t think so. Moreover, this line of thinking seems to me insulting to the unfree world. In Egypt and Bahrain in recent weeks, I’ve been humbled by the lionhearted men and women I’ve seen defying tear gas or bullets for freedom that we take for granted. How can we say that these people are unready for a democracy that they are prepared to die for?

We Americans spout bromides about freedom. Democracy campaigners in the Middle East have been enduring unimaginable tortures as the price of their struggle — at the hands of dictators who are our allies — yet they persist. In Bahrain, former political prisoners have said that their wives were taken into the jail in front of them. And then the men were told that unless they confessed, their wives would promptly be raped. That, or more conventional tortures, usually elicited temporary confessions, yet for years or decades those activists persisted in struggling for democracy. And we ask if they’re mature enough to handle it?

The common thread of this year’s democracy movement from Tunisia to Iran, from Yemen to Libya, has been undaunted courage. I’ll never forget a double-amputee I met in Tahrir Square in Cairo when Hosni Mubarak’s thugs were attacking with rocks, clubs and Molotov cocktails. This young man rolled his wheelchair to the front lines. And we doubt his understanding of what democracy means?

In Bahrain, I watched a column of men and women march unarmed toward security forces when, a day earlier, the troops had opened fire with live ammunition. Anyone dare say that such people are too immature to handle democracy?

Look, there’ll be bumps ahead. It took Americans six years after the Revolutionary War to elect a president, and we almost came apart at the seams again in the 1860s. When Eastern Europe became democratic after the 1989 revolutions, Poland and the Czech Republic adjusted well, but Romania and Albania endured chaos for years. After the 1998 people power revolution in Indonesia, I came across mobs in eastern Java who were beheading people and carrying their heads on pikes.

The record is that after some missteps, countries usually pull through. Education, wealth, international connections and civil society institutions help. And, on balance, Egypt, Libya and Bahrain are better positioned today for democracy than Mongolia or Indonesia seemed in the 1990s — and Mongolia and Indonesia today are successes. Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain visited the Middle East a few days ago (arms dealers in tow), and he forthrightly acknowledged that for too long Britain had backed authoritarian regimes to achieve stability. He acknowledged that his country had bought into the bigoted notion “that Arabs or Muslims can’t do democracy.” And he added: “For me, that’s a prejudice that borders on racism. It’s offensive and wrong, and it’s simply not true.”

It’s still a view peddled by Arab dictatorships, particularly Saudi Arabia — and, of course, by China’s leaders and just about any African despot. It’s unfortunate when Westerners are bigoted in this way, but it’s even sadder when leaders in the developing world voice such prejudices about their own people.

In the 21st century, there’s no realistic alternative to siding with people power. Prof. William Easterly of New York University proposes a standard of reciprocity: “I don’t support autocracy in your society if I don’t want it in my society.”

That should be our new starting point. I’m awed by the courage I see, and it’s condescending and foolish to suggest that people dying for democracy aren’t ready for it.

Now here’s Mr. Rich:

No one remembers anything in America, especially in Washington, so the history of the Great Government Shutdown of 1995 is being rewritten with impunity by Republicans flirting with a Great Government Shutdown of 2011. The bottom line of the revisionist spin is this: that 2011 is no 1995. Should the unthinkable occur on some coming budget D-Day — or perhaps when the deadline to raise the federal debt ceiling arrives this spring — the G.O.P. is cocksure that it can pin the debacle on the Democrats.

In the right’s echo chamber, voters are seen as so fed up with deficits that they’ll put principle over temporary inconveniences — like, say, a halt in processing new Social Security applicants or veterans’ benefit checks. Who needs coddled government workers to deal with those minutiae anyway? As Mike Huckabee has cheerfully pointed out, many more federal services are automated now than in the olden days of the late 20th century. Phone trees don’t demand pensions.

Remarkably (or not) much of the Beltway press has bought the line that comparisons between then and now are superficial. Sure, Bill Clinton, like Barack Obama, was bruised by his first midterms, with his party losing the House to right-wing revolutionaries hawking the Contract With America, a Tea Party ur-text demanding balanced budgets. But after that, we’re instructed, the narratives diverge. John Boehner is no bomb-throwing diva like Newt Gingrich, whose petulant behavior inspired the famous headline “Cry Baby” in The Daily News. A crier — well, yes — but Boehner’s too conventional a conservative to foment a reckless shutdown. Obama, prone to hanging back from Congressional donnybrooks, bears scant resemblance to the hands-on Clinton, who clamored to get into the ring with Newt.

Those propagating the 2011-is-not-1995 line also assume that somehow Boehner will prevent the new G.O.P. insurgents from bringing down the government they want to bring down. But if Gingrich couldn’t control his hard-line freshman class of 73 members in 1995 — he jokingly referred to them then as “a third party” — it’s hard to imagine how the kinder, gentler Boehner will control his 87 freshmen, many of them lacking government or legislative experience, let alone the gene for compromise. In the new Congress’s short history, the new speaker has already had trouble controlling his caucus. On Friday Gingrich made Boehner’s task harder by writing a Washington Post op-ed plea that the G.O.P. stick to its guns.

The 2011 rebels are to the right of their 1995 antecedents in any case. That’s why this battle, ostensibly over the deficit, is so much larger than the sum of its line-item parts. The highest priority of America’s current political radicals is not to balance government budgets but to wage ideological warfare in Washington and state capitals alike. The relatively few dollars that would be saved by the proposed slashing of federal spending on Planned Parenthood and Head Start don’t dent the deficit; the cuts merely savage programs the right abhors. In Wisconsin, where state workers capitulated to Gov. Scott Walker’s demands for financial concessions, the radical Republicans’ only remaining task is to destroy labor’s right to collective bargaining.

That’s not to say there is no fiscal mission in the right’s agenda, both nationally and locally — only that the mission has nothing to do with deficit reduction. The real goal is to reward the G.O.P.’s wealthiest patrons by crippling what remains of organized labor, by wrecking the government agencies charged with regulating and policing corporations, and, as always, by rewarding the wealthiest with more tax breaks. The bankrupt moral equation codified in the Bush era — that tax cuts tilted to the highest bracket were a higher priority even than paying for two wars — is now a given. The once-bedrock American values of shared sacrifice and equal economic opportunity have been overrun.

In this bigger picture, the Wisconsin governor’s fawning 20-minute phone conversation with a prankster impersonating the oil billionaire David Koch last week, while entertaining, is merely a footnote. The Koch Industries political action committee did contribute to Walker’s campaign (some $43,000) and did help underwrite Tea Party ads and demonstrations in Madison. But this governor is merely a petty-cash item on the Koch ledger — as befits the limited favors he can offer Koch’s mammoth, sprawling, Kansas-based industrial interests.

Look to Washington for the bigger story. As The Los Angeles Times recently reported, Koch Industries and its employees form the largest bloc of oil and gas industry donors to members of the new House Energy and Commerce Committee, topping even Exxon Mobil. And what do they get for that largess? As a down payment, the House budget bill not only reduces financing for the Environmental Protection Agency but also prohibits its regulation of greenhouse gases.

Here again, the dollars that will be saved are minute in terms of the federal deficit, but the payoff to Koch interests from a weakened E.P.A. is priceless. The same dynamic is at play in the House’s reduced spending for the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Internal Revenue Service. and the Commodities Futures Trading Commission (charged with regulation of the esoteric Wall Street derivatives that greased the financial crisis). The reduction in the deficit will be minimal, but the bottom lines for the Kochs and their peers, especially on Wall Street, will swell.

These special interests will stay in the closet next week when the Tea Partiers in the House argue (as the Gingrich cohort once did) that their only agenda is old-fashioned fiscal prudence. The G.O.P. is also banking on the presumption that Obama will bide his time too long, as he did in the protracted health care and tax-cut melees, and allow the Fox News megaphone, not yet in place in ’95, to frame the debate. Listening to the right’s incessant propaganda, you’d never know that the latest Pew survey found that Americans want to increase, not decrease, most areas of federal spending — and by large margins in the cases of health care and education.

The G.O.P. leadership faced those same headwinds from voters in ’95. As Boehner, then on the Gingrich team, told The Times in a January 1996 post-mortem, the G.O.P. had tested the notion of talking about “balancing the budget and Medicare in the same sentence” and discovered it would bring “big trouble.” Gingrich’s solution, he told The Times then, was simple: “We learned that if you talked about ‘preserving’ and ‘protecting’ Medicare, it worked.” Which it did until it didn’t — at which point the Gingrich revolution imploded.

Rather hilariously, the Republicans’ political gurus still believe that Gingrich’s ruse can work. In a manifesto titled “How the G.O.P. Can Win the Budget Battle” published in The Wall Street Journal last week, Fred Barnes of Fox News put it this way: “Bragging about painful but necessary cuts to Medicare scares people. Stressing the goal of saving Medicare won’t.” But the G.O.P. is trotting out one new political strategy this time. Current House leaders, mindful that their ’95 counterparts’ bravado backfired, constantly reiterate that they are “not looking for a government shutdown,” as Paul Ryan puts it. They seem to believe that if they repeat this locution often enough it will inoculate them from blame should a shutdown happen anyway — when, presumably, they are not looking.

Maybe, but no less an authority than Dick Armey, these days a leading Tea Party operative, thinks otherwise. Back in ’95, as a Gingrich deputy, he had been more bellicose than most in threatening a shutdown, as Bill Clinton recounts in his memoirs. But in 2006, Armey told a different story when reminiscing to an interviewer, Ryan Sager: “Newt’s position was, presidents get blamed for shutdowns, and he cited Ronald Reagan. My position was, Republicans get blamed for shutdowns. I argued that it is counterintuitive to the average American to think that the Democrat wants to shut down the government. They’re the advocates of the government. It is perfectly logical to them that Republicans would shut it down, because we’re seen as antithetical to government.”

Armey’s logic is perfect indeed, but logic is not the rage among his ideological compatriots this year. Otherwise, the Tea Party radicals might have figured out the single biggest difference between 1995 and 2011 — the state of the economy. Last time around, America was more or less humming along with an unemployment rate of 5.6 percent. This time we are still digging out of the worst financial disaster since the Great Depression, with an unemployment rate of 9 percent and oil prices on the rise. To even toy with shutting down the government in this uncertain climate is to risk destabilizing the nascent recovery, with those in need of the government safety net (including 43 million Americans on food stamps) doing most of the suffering.

Not that the gravity of this moment will necessarily stop the right from using the same playbook as last time. Still heady with hubris from the midterms — and having persuaded themselves that Gingrich’s 1995 history can’t possibly repeat itself — radical Republicans are convinced that deficit-addled voters are on their side no matter what. The president, meanwhile, is playing his cards close to his vest. Let’s hope he knows that he, not the speaker, is the player holding a full house, and that he will tell the country in no uncertain terms that much more than money is on the table.

We shall see…

Dowd, Herbert and Rich

February 20, 2011

Mr. Kristof is off today, and The Moustache of Wisdom is back on book tour.  In “Stars and Sewers” MoDo has a question:  Is technology rewiring our brains to be more callous?  Mr. Herbert addresses “The Human Cost of Budget Cutting,” and says more necessary now than ever, community action agencies are threatened with draconian cuts.  Mr. Rich, in “The G.O.P.’s Post-Tucson Traumatic Stress Disorder,” says the Republicans are adrift with a shortfall of substance, offering the president a golden chance to seize the moment.  Given the last two years, the odds are excellent that the opportunity will be squandered.  Here’s MoDo:

Rarely have we seen such epic clashes between the forces of light and darkness.

We watch in awe as revolutions somersault through the Middle East. We see instantaneous digital communication as a weapon against oppression and, in the hands of tyrants who tap into its power, as a weapon for oppression.

While the cloud spurs some people to reach for the stars, delighting in freedom of expression, it seduces others to sprawl in the gutter, abusing freedom of expression.

When CBS’s Lara Logan was dragged off, beaten and sexually assaulted by a mob of Egyptian men in Tahrir Square the giddy night that Hosni Mubarak stepped down, most of us were aghast. But some vile bodies online began beating up on the brave war correspondent.

Nir Rosen, a journalist published in The Nation, The New Yorker and The Atlantic who had a fellowship at New York University’s Center on Law and Security, likes to be a provocateur. He has urged America to “get over” 9/11, called Israel an “abomination” to be eliminated, and sympathized with Hezbollah, Hamas and the Taliban. Invited to testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2008 about the Iraq surge, he told Joe Biden, the committee chairman then, that he was uncomfortable “advising an imperialist power about how to be a more efficient imperialist power.”

Rosen must now wish Twitter had a 10-second delay. On Tuesday, he merrily tweeted about the sexual assault of Logan: “Jesus Christ, at a moment when she is going to become a martyr and glorified we should at least remember her role as a major war monger.”

He suggested she was trying to “outdo Anderson” Cooper (roughed up in Cairo earlier), adding that “it would have been funny if it happened to Anderson too.”

Rosen lost his fellowship. He apologized in a whiny way, explaining that he “resented” Logan because she “defended American imperial adventures,” and that she got so much attention for the assault because she’s white and famous. He explained in Salon that “Twitter is no place for nuance,” as though there’s any nuance in his suggestion that Logan wanted to be sexually assaulted for ratings.

He professed to be baffled by the fact that he had 1,000 new Twitter followers, noting: “It’s a bizarre, voyeuristic Internet culture and everybody in the mob is looking to get in on the next fight.” It’s been Lord of the Flies for a while now, dude, and you’re part of it.

The conservative blogger Debbie Schlussel smacked Logan from the right: “Lara Logan was among the chief cheerleaders of this ‘revolution’ by animals. Now she knows what the Islamic revolution is really all about.”

On her LA Weekly blog, Simone Wilson dredged up Logan’s romantic exploits and quoted a Feb. 3 snipe from the conservative blog Mofo Politics, after Logan was detained by the Egyptian police: “OMG if I were her captors and there were no sanctions for doing so, I would totally rape her.”

Online anonymity has created what the computer scientist Jaron Lanier calls a “culture of sadism.” Some Yahoo comments were disgusting. “She got what she deserved,” one said. “This is what happens when dumb sexy female reporters want to make it about them.” Hillbilly Nation chimed in: “Should have been Katie.”

The “60 Minutes” story about Senator Scott Brown’s revelation that a camp counselor sexually abused him as a child drew harsh comments on the show’s Web site, many politically motivated.

Acupuncturegirl advised: “Scott, shut the hell up. You are gross.” Dutra1 noted: “OK, Scott, you get your free pity pills. Now examine the image you see in the mirror; is it a man?”

Evgeny Morozov, author of “The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom,” told me Twitter creates a false intimacy and can “bring out the worst in people. You’re straining after eyeballs, not big thoughts. So you go for the shallow, funny, contrarian or cynical.”

Nicholas Carr, author of “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains,” says technology amplifies everything, good instincts and base. While technology is amoral, he said, our brains may be rewired in disturbing ways.

“Researchers say that we need to be quiet and attentive if we want to tap into our deeper emotions,” he said. “If we’re constantly interrupted and distracted, we kind of short-circuit our empathy. If you dampen empathy and you encourage the immediate expression of whatever is in your mind, you get a lot of nastiness that wouldn’t have occurred before.”

Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of The New Republic, recalled that when he started his online book review he forbade comments, wary of high-tech sociopaths.

“I’m not interested in having the sewer appear on my site,” he said. “Why would I engage with people digitally whom I would never engage with actually? Why does the technology exonerate the kind of foul expression that you would not tolerate anywhere else?”

Why indeed?

Now here’s Mr. Herbert:

John Drew believes, quaintly, that we are our brother’s keeper.

President Obama does not seem to believe this quite as strongly. And, of course, many of the Republicans in Congress do not believe it at all.

Mr. Drew is the president of Boston’s antipoverty agency, called Action for Boston Community Development, which everyone calls ABCD. In today’s environment, people who work with the poor can be forgiven if they feel like hunted criminals. Government officials at all levels are homing in on them and disrupting their efforts, sometimes for legitimate budget reasons, sometimes not.

The results are often heartbreaking.

Community action agencies like ABCD are not generally well known but they serve as a lifeline, all across the country, to poor individuals and families who desperately need the assistance provided by food pantries, homeless shelters, workers who visit the homebound elderly, and so forth. They offer summer jobs for young people and try to ward off the eviction of the jobless and their dependents.

More than 20 million people receive some kind of assistance from community action agencies over the course of a year. This winter an elderly man in Boston was found during a routine visit to be suffering in his home from frostbite of the hands and feet. The visit most likely saved his life.

We should keep in mind the current extent of economic suffering in the U.S. as we consider President Obama’s misguided plan to impose a crippling 50 percent reduction in the community service block grants that serve as the crucial foundation for community action agencies. The cuts will undoubtedly doom many of the programs. (The Republicans in the House would eliminate the block grants entirely.)

It’s a measure of where we are as a country that this has not been a bigger news story.

“I’ve been like 40 years on the front lines here and never saw anything quite like what we’re going through now,” said Mr. Drew. “I go back to when President Nixon tried to put us out of business. Reagan tried to push us off the table. They didn’t succeed. Quite frankly, I didn’t expect that at this stage of the game we’d be facing these kinds of cuts from a President Obama. And the Republicans in the House — well, they’re just nihilistic. I don’t know where the moral center of the universe is anymore.”

Community action agencies were established decades ago to undergird the fight against poverty throughout the U.S., in big cities, small towns, rural areas — wherever there were people in trouble. It’s the only comprehensive antipoverty effort in the country, and the need for them has only grown in the current long and terrible economic climate.

President Obama’s proposal to cut the approximately $700 million grant by 50 percent is an initiative with no upside. The $350 million reduction is meaningless in terms of the federal budget deficits, but it is enough to wreck many of these fine programs and hurt an awful lot of people, including children and the elderly.

It seemed like just a moment ago that these programs were held in high esteem by the president, a former community organizer himself. Community action agencies received $5 billion in stimulus funds to train people to weatherize homes. They ended up being ranked eighth out of 200 federal programs that got stimulus money in terms of the number of jobs created.

Now, suddenly, these agencies are dispensable.

The block grant money from the federal government is highly leveraged. The agencies secure additional public and private funds that enable them to support a wide network of programs that offer an astonishing array of important services. These include Head Start, job training and child care programs, legal services, affordable housing for the elderly, domestic violence intervention, and on and on.

When these kinds of programs are zeroed out, the impact is profound. Jobs are eliminated and vital services are no longer available. Poverty and its associated costs to governments increase. In terms of budgets, it’s the definition of being penny-wise and pound-foolish. ABCD, for example, has been very effective in preventing evictions, working diligently with landlords, tenants and others to keep individuals and families from becoming homeless. When such efforts are successful, they not only keep individuals and families in their homes, they keep taxpayers from having to foot the very expensive bill of housing individuals and families in shelters.

President Obama may be trying to score a few political points by presenting himself as a budget cutter willing to attack programs that he has said he favors. But the price of those points in potential human suffering is much too high.

The president’s budget director, Jacob Lew, said in The New York Times: “The budget is not just a collection of numbers, but an expression of our values and aspirations.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Now here’s Mr. Rich:

Six weeks after that horrific day in Tucson, America has half-forgotten its violent debate over the power of violent speech to incite violence. It’s Gabrielle Giffords’s own power of speech that rightly concerns us now. But all those arguments over political language did leave a discernible legacy. In the aftermath of President Obama’s Tucson sermon, civility has had a mini-restoration in Washington. And some of the most combative national figures in our politics have been losing altitude ever since, much as they did after Bill Clinton’s oratorical response to the inferno of Oklahoma City.

Glenn Beck’s ratings at Fox News continued their steady decline, falling to an all-time low last month. He has lost 39 percent of his viewers in a year and 48 percent of the prime 25-to-54 age demographic. His strenuous recent efforts to portray the Egyptian revolution as an apocalyptic leftist-jihadist conspiracy have inspired more laughs than adherents.

Sarah Palin’s tailspin is also pronounced. It can be seen in polls, certainly: the ABC News-Washington Post survey found that 30 percent of Americans approved of her response to the Tucson massacre and 46 percent did not. (Obama’s numbers in the same poll were 78 percent favorable, 12 percent negative.) But equally telling was the fate of a Palin speech scheduled for May at a so-called Patriots & Warriors Gala in Glendale, Colo.

Tickets to see Palin, announced at $185 on Jan. 16, eight days after Tucson, were slashed to half-price in early February. Then the speech was canceled altogether, with the organizers blaming “safety concerns resulting from an onslaught of negative feedback.” But when The Denver Post sought out the Glendale police chief, he reported there had been no threats or other causes for alarm. The real “negative feedback” may have been anemic ticket sales, particularly if they were to cover Palin’s standard $100,000 fee.

What may at long last be dawning on some Republican grandees is that a provocateur who puts her political adversaries in the cross hairs and then instructs her acolytes to “RELOAD” frightens most voters.

Even the Rupert Murdoch empire shows signs of opting for retreat over reload. Its newest right-wing book imprint had set its splashy debut for Jan. 18, with the rollout of a screed, “Death by Liberalism,” arguing that “more Americans have been killed by well-meaning liberal policies than by all the wars of the last century combined.” But that publication date was 10 days after Tucson, and clearly someone had second thoughts. You’ll look in vain for the usual hype, or mere mentions, of “Death by Liberalism” in other Murdoch media outlets (or anywhere else). Even more unexpectedly, Murdoch’s flagship newspaper, The Wall Street Journal, ran an op-ed essay last week by the reliably conservative Michael Medved trashing over-the-top Obama critiques from Palin, Rush Limbaugh and Dinesh D’Souza as “paranoid” and “destructive to the conservative cause” — the cause defined as winning national elections.

If the next step in this declension is less face time for Palin on Fox News, then we’ll have proof that pigs can fly. But a larger question remains. If the right puts its rabid Obama hatred on the down-low, what will — or can — conservatism stand for instead? The only apparent agendas are repealing “Obamacare” and slashing federal spending as long as the cuts are quarantined to the small percentage of the budget covering discretionary safety-net programs, education and Big Bird.

This shortfall of substance was showcased by last weekend’s annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, a premier Republican rite that doubles as a cattle call for potential presidential candidates. Palin didn’t appear — CPAC, as the event is known, doesn’t pay — and neither did her fellow Fox News personality Mike Huckabee. But all the others were there, including that great white hope of un-Palin Republicans, Mitt Romney. What they said — and didn’t say — from the CPAC podium not only shows a political opposition running on empty but also dramatizes the remarkable leadership opportunity their fecklessness has handed to the incumbent president in post-shellacking Washington.

As it happened, CPAC overlapped with the extraordinary onrush of history in the Middle East. But the Egyptian uprising, supposedly a prime example of the freedom agenda championed by George W. Bush, was rarely, and then only minimally, mentioned by the parade of would-be presidents. Indeed, with the exception of Ron Paul — who would let the Egyptians fend for themselves and cut off all foreign aid — the most detailed discussions of Egypt came from Ann Coulter and Rick Santorum.

Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator who lost his 2006 re-election bid by a landslide of 17 percentage points, believes he can be president despite being best known for having likened homosexuality to “man on dog” sex. Even less conversant in foreign affairs than canine coitus, he attacked Obama for deserting Hosni Mubarak, questioning the message it sent to America’s “friends.” But no one (with the odd exception of George Will) takes Santorum’s presidential ambitions seriously. Romney, on the other hand, is the closest thing the G.O.P. has to a front-runner, and he is even more hollow than Santorum. Indeed, his appearance at CPAC on the morning of Friday, Feb. 11, was entirely consistent with his public image as an otherworldly visitor from an Aqua Velva commercial circa 1985.

That Friday was the day after Mubarak’s bizarre speech vowing to keep his hold on power. At 9:45 a.m. that morning, as a rapt world waited for his next move, CNN reported that there would soon be a new statement from Mubarak — whose abdication was confirmed around 11 a.m. But when Romney took the stage in Washington at 10:35, he made not a single allusion of any kind to Egypt — even as he lambasted Obama for not having a foreign policy. His snarky, cowardly address also tiptoed around “Obamacare” lest it remind Tea Partiers of Massachusetts’s “Romneycare.” He was nearly as out of touch with reality as Mubarak the night before.

There was one serious speech at CPAC — an economic colloquy delivered that night by Mitch Daniels, the Indiana governor much beloved by what remains of mainstream conservative punditry. But Daniels was quickly thrashed: Limbaugh attacked him for his mild suggestion that the G.O.P. welcome voters who are not ideological purists, and CPAC attendees awarded him with only 4 percent of the vote in their straw poll. (The winners were Paul, with 30 percent, and Romney, with 23 percent.) Indeed, Daniels couldn’t even compete with the surprise CPAC appearance of Donald Trump, a sometime Democrat whose own substance-free Obama-bashing oration drew an overflow crowd. Apparently few at CPAC could imagine that Trump might be using them to drum up publicity for his own ratings-challenged television show, “Celebrity Apprentice,” which returns in just two weeks — or that he had contributed $50,000 to the Chicago mayoral campaign of no less an Obama ally than Rahm Emanuel.

THE G.O.P. has already reached its praying-for-a-miracle phase — hoping some neo-Reagan will emerge to usurp the tired field. Trump! Thune! T-Paw! Christie! Jeb Bush! Soon it’ll be time for another Fred Thompson or Rudy groundswell. But hardly had CPAC folded its tent than a new Public Policy Polling survey revealed where the Republican base’s heart truly remains — despite the new civility and the temporary moratorium on the term “job-killing.” The poll found that 51 percent of G.O.P. primary voters don’t believe that the president was born in America and that only 28 percent do. (For another 21 percent, the jury is still out, as it presumably is on evolution as well.)

The party leadership is no less cowed by that majority today than it was pre-Tucson. That’s why John Boehner, appearing on “Meet the Press” last weekend, stonewalled David Gregory’s repeated queries asking him to close the door on the “birther” nonsense. (“It’s not my job to tell the American people what to think,” Boehner said.) The power of the G.O.P.’s hard-core base may also yet deliver a Palin comeback no matter what the rest of the country thinks of her. In the CNN poll nearly two weeks after Tucson, Republicans still gave her a 70 percent favorable approval rating, just behind Huckabee (72 percent) and ahead of Romney (64 percent).

An opposition this adrift from reality — whether about Obama’s birth certificate, history unfolding in the Middle East or the consequences of a federal or state government shutdown — is a paper tiger. It’s a golden chance for the president to seize the moment. What we don’t know is if he sees it that way. As we’ve learned from his track record both in the 2008 campaign and in the White House, he sometimes coasts at these junctures or lapses into a pro forma bipartisanship that amounts, for all practical purposes, to inertia.

Obama’s outspokenness about the labor battle in Wisconsin offers a glimmer of hope that he might lead the fight for what many Americans, not just Democrats, care about — from job creation to an energy plan to an attack on the deficit that brackets the high-end Bush-era tax cuts with serious Medicare/Medicaid reform and further strengthening of the health care law. Will he do so? The answer to that question is at least as mysterious as the identity of whatever candidate the desperate G.O.P. finds to run against him.

 

Dowd, Brooks, Friedman, Kristof and Rich

February 6, 2011

MoDo brings to our attention the fact that Donald Rumsfeld has written a memoir.  In “Blame, Not Shame” she says “Certainty with power can be dangerous,” writes Donald Rumsfeld. He should know.  She’s less than thrilled with the book.  Bobo, in “The 40 Percent Nation,” gurgles out a question:  What do Egypt’s underlying structures tell us about its future post-Mubarak?  Seeing as my guess is that he knows as much about Egypt’s underlying structures as I do about quantum physics…  The Moustache of Wisdom is in Amman, apparently on a break from flogging his new book on morning TV.  In “China, Twitter and 20-Year-Olds vs. the Pyramids” he says the forces that were upholding the status quo in the Middle East have finally met an engine of change that is even more powerful.  And the world is flat, according to Tommy.  Mr. Kristof, in “Militants, Women and Tahrir Sq.,” says it boils down to this: Most Egyptians want to live in a democracy, just like the one we fought for in 1776.  Mr. Rich, in “Wallflowers at the Revolution,” says Amid the Egyptian crisis, television pundits aggrandized American inventions, Twitter and Facebook.  Okay.  Let’s get started.  Here’s MoDo:

So many to blame. So little space.

Donald Rumsfeld has only 815 pages — including a scintillating List of Acronyms — to explain why he was not responsible when Stuff Happened. His memoir, “Known and Unknown,” is like a living, breathing version of the man himself: very thorough, highly analytical and totally absent any credible self-criticism.

The 78-year-old Rumstud, as W. dubbed him, was both the youngest defense secretary in American history and the oldest. He traces a political career that spans a time when Lucy and Ricky were considered an “interracial relationship,” when Gerald Ford was “fresh blood” and when Richard Nixon still had a secret taping system. (He writes that Nixon once insisted he would bring peace to Vietnam, noting, “Richard Nixon doesn’t shoot blanks,” and dismissed his NATO staff as “a bunch of fairies.”)

Rummy met Dick Cheney when Cheney applied to be an intern in Rummy’s Congressional office, and they had many fine adventures, from figuring out how to keep the sun from shining on President Ford’s neck in the Oval Office to lowering American standards on torture.

The high school wrestling champ doesn’t wrestle with self-doubt. Rummy begins ladling out rationalizations in the preface. “The idea of known and unknown unknowns recognizes that the information those in positions of responsibility in government, as well as in other human endeavors, have at their disposal is almost always incomplete,” he writes. He quotes Clausewitz on the challenge of faulty intelligence and Socrates saying, “I neither know nor think that I know.”

When you think about it, it was really all the fault of his nemesis, George Herbert Walker Bush. Rummy writes how humiliating it was to run for president briefly in the 1988 Republican primary, with no money or name recognition, when front-runner Bush didn’t bother to show up for their candidate forums. Rummy has never hidden his disdain for Poppy, whom he regards as a flighty preppy who didn’t have the brass to march into Baghdad and take down Saddam Hussein. The end of the Persian Gulf war was about manners. The first President Bush had promised the allies he would merely shoo Saddam out of Kuwait, so that’s all he did. Any more would have been “unchivalrous,” as Rummy quotes Colin Powell saying.

No doubt Rummy feels that if he’d been a pedigreed scion instead of a working-class scholarship kid, he could have been president. And he wouldn’t have made a hash of it, like some presidents he worked for. He wouldn’t have had indistinct chains of authority or confused lines of responsibility or unrestricted flow charts or unresolved internal conflicts or a paucity of interagency meetings or most grievous of all, memos that were not read and acted upon.

There were those in the military who considered Rumsfeld the devil incarnate, and those in diplomacy who considered him more ruthless than any global despot. Rummy dismisses reports of his masterminding as inaccurate rumors.

W., however, loved Rummy’s blunt muscularity and contempt for weakness. “I was still surprised by Governor Bush’s request to see me,” Rummy writes about the president-elect. “He had to be aware that I did not have a close relationship with his father.” At some level, that must have appealed to the wimp-phobic W., who spent more time trying to be Ronald Reagan’s heir than his dad’s.

Starting on 9/11, Rummy pushed and maneuvered to blame Saddam for 9/11 despite the lack of evidence.

He excoriates others as scheming infighters. He writes that, despite her “affinity for” W., Condi was a bad N.S.C. chief, forcing consensus rather than letting contentious issues get to the president. He mocks her rhetoric trying to push democracy as secretary of state, especially her contention that “human rights trump security.” He notes with asperity that it was not her place to press Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf to take off his uniform — much less to tell Rummy himself that the pinstripes on his old pants had faded away.

He blames Colin Powell for posturing with the press and George Tenet for being so cocky about Saddam’s phantom W.M.D. He claims viceroy Paul Bremer messed up Iraq, occupying too long, ignoring the chain of command and carving out a separate relationship with the president.

He even delicately blames the president, for not making incisive decisions at times on pressing matters and for not scheduling “a high-level meeting on my proposals” sent in a memo.

He says it was Tommy Franks who didn’t want a lot of ground forces in Tora Bora, when Osama got away from us. He blames the generals for not telling him he needed more troops to secure Iraq — as though he would have listened. He blames the Geneva Convention’s drafters for not knowing detainees of modern “asymmetrical” wars would need rougher treatment. He blames the Supreme Court for its “novel reasoning” defending detainee rights. He blames Katrina on …

Oh, never mind. You get the idea.

That’s a book that I would want to wash my hands after I touched it…  Here’s Bobo:

In the 1990s, at the height of the democratic revolutions, many people assumed that getting rid of the dictator was the hard part. If the people in a country could topple the old regime, then their country would make the transition toward democracy.

But in 2002, Thomas Carothers gathered the evidence and wrote a seminal essay called “The End of the Transition Paradigm,” pointing out that moving away from dictatorship does not mean moving toward democracy. Many countries end up in a “gray zone,” with semi-functioning governments and powerful oligarchies.

Since then, a mountain of research has established that countries with strong underlying institutions have better odds of making it to democracy. Some scholars argue that political institutions matter most — having independent political parties. Others say social institutions matter most — having a cross-cutting web of citizen, neighborhood and religious groups.

So I’ve been reading reports from the United Nations, the World Bank and other groups to see what they say about the strength of Egypt’s institutions. These reports give the impression that Egypt is a place where people are trying to lead normal, middle-class lives, but they are frustrated at every turn by overstaffed and lethargic bureaucracies.

For example, Egypt does a good job of getting kids to attend elementary school, high school and college. But the quality of the educational system is terrible, ranking 106th out of 131 nations in one measure. The U.N. Human Development Index, which is a broad measure of human capital and potential, ranks Egypt 101st out of 182 countries.

The quality of government agencies over all is a tad better. The World Bank Institute puts Egypt at around the 40th percentile when it comes to government effectiveness. It puts Egypt in the 50th percentile when it comes to the quality of regulations and rule of law. Where it really lags is in measures of responsiveness and accountability. Egypt’s government agencies are among the least responsive on earth.

The government’s economic reform effort illustrates the strengths and weaknesses of the governing institutions. The World Bank gives Egypt high marks for its efforts to move from a centrally planned to a more market-oriented economy. For example, an entrepreneur now has to go through only six procedures to start a company, taking an average of seven days. In 2007, Egypt ranked 165th out of 175 nations in ease of doing business. By 2011, it had moved up to 94th out of 183.

But corruption levels are around the global average, which is to say, corruption is rife. It takes 218 days to get a building permit to put up a warehouse, with all the attending bribes. The effort to privatize state-owned enterprises turned into an enrichment scheme for cronies of the regime. For example, only two families were allowed to bid for the state-run cinema company.

Over all, Egypt’s competitiveness is mediocre but not terrible. The World Economic Forum ranks Egypt 81st out of the 139 nations it evaluates. When you look inside the economic rankings, you see that Egypt does fine on many of the short-term decisions, like having a flexible wage structure, but it does horribly on long-term things. Its companies devote very little money to research and development. It is suffering from one of the worst brain drains in the world.

Socially, the country seems stymied. Up until the recent rallies, Egypt has been a place where people have tried to build informal groups like unions and professional organizations, only to see the government move in to stifle or co-opt their efforts. The country has some nongovernmental organizations, but far fewer than the global average, and those that exist are restricted and dominated by the government. Journalists have tried to create a space for a free press, but with only moderate success. (With 20 percent of Egyptians going online, Egypt has one of the highest rates of Internet penetration in Africa.)

The biggest gap, by far, is political. The government has successfully prevented political parties from forming, with limited exceptions like the Muslim Brotherhood. Party-building is the country’s screaming need and should be the top priority for outside assistance.

Egypt is in much better shape than Iraq was under Saddam Hussein or Gaza was before Hamas took over. It’s a 40 percent nation, mediocre in the world rankings, but not a basket case. Surveys showed that until about a week ago, Egyptians had extraordinarily low expectations for the future, among the lowest in the world.

But now things seem to be changing. And while you wouldn’t say that Egypt possesses the sort of human, social and institutional capital that will enable it to achieve miracles over the next few years, you’d have to say it has some decent underlying structures. And, if led wisely, it has a reasonable shot at joining the normal, democratic world.

Gawd, I wish Bobo wouldn’t try to think.  He’s really not all that good at it.  Here’s The Moustache of Wisdom:

Anyone who’s long followed the Middle East knows that the six most dangerous words after any cataclysmic event in this region are: “Things will never be the same.” After all, this region absorbed the fall of the Berlin Wall and the rise of Google without a ripple.

But traveling through Israel, the West Bank and Jordan to measure the shock waves from Egypt, I’m convinced that the forces that were upholding the status quo here for so long — oil, autocracy, the distraction of Israel, and a fear of the chaos that could come with change — have finally met an engine of change that is even more powerful: China, Twitter and 20-year-olds.

Of course, China per se is not fueling the revolt here — but China and the whole Asian-led developing world’s rising consumption of meat, corn, sugar, wheat and oil certainly is. The rise in food and gasoline prices that slammed into this region in the last six months clearly sharpened discontent with the illegitimate regimes — particularly among the young, poor and unemployed.

This is why every government out here is now rushing to increase subsidies and boost wages — even without knowing how to pay for it, or worse, taking it from capital budgets to build schools and infrastructure. King Abdullah II of Jordan just gave every soldier and civil servant a $30-a-month pay raise, along with new food and gasoline subsidies. Kuwait’s government last week announced a “gift” of about $3,500 to each of Kuwait’s 1.1 million citizens and about $850 million in food subsidies.

But China is a challenge for Egypt and Jordan in other ways. Several years ago, I wrote about Egyptian entrepreneurs who were importing traditional lanterns for Ramadan — with microchips in them that played Egyptian folk songs — from China. When China can make Egyptian Ramadan toys more cheaply and appealingly than low-wage Egyptians, you know there is problem of competitiveness.

Egypt, Jordan, Yemen, Tunisia today are overflowing with the most frustrated cohort in the world — “the educated unemployables.” They have college degrees on paper but really don’t have the skills to make them globally competitive. I was just in Singapore. Its government is obsessed with things as small as how to better teach fractions to third graders. That has not been Hosni Mubarak’s obsession.

I look at the young protesters who gathered in downtown Amman today, and the thousands who gathered in Egypt and Tunis, and my heart aches for them. So much human potential, but they have no idea how far behind they are — or maybe they do and that’s why they’re revolting. Egypt’s government has wasted the last 30 years — i.e., their whole lives — plying them with the soft bigotry of low expectations: “Be patient. Egypt moves at its own pace, like the Nile.” Well, great. Singapore also moves at its own pace, like the Internet.

The Arab world has 100 million young people today between the ages of 15 and 29, many of them males who do not have the education to get a good job, buy an apartment and get married. That is trouble. Add in rising food prices, and the diffusion of Twitter, Facebook and texting, which finally gives them a voice to talk back to their leaders and directly to each other, and you have a very powerful change engine.

I have not been to Jordan for a while, but my ears are ringing today with complaints about corruption, frustration with the king and queen, and disgust at the enormous gaps between rich and poor. King Abdullah, who sacked his cabinet last week and promised real reform and real political parties, has his work cut out for him. And given some of the blogs that my friends here have shared with me from the biggest local Web site, Ammonnews.net, the people are not going to settle for the same-old, same-old. They say so directly now, dropping the old pretense of signing antigovernment blog posts as “Mohammed living in Sweden.”

Jordan is not going to blow up — today. The country is balanced between East Bank Bedouin tribes and West Bank Palestinians, who fought a civil war in 1970. “There is no way that the East Bankers would join with the Palestinians to topple the Hashemite monarchy,” a retired Jordanian general remarked to me. But this balance also makes reform difficult. The East Bankers overwhelmingly staff the army and government jobs. They prefer the welfare state, and hate both “privatization” and what they call “the digitals,” the young Jordanian techies pushing for reform. The Palestinians dominate commerce but also greatly value the stability the Hashemite monarchy provides.

Egypt was definitely a wake-up call for Jordan’s monarchy. The king’s challenge going forward is to convince his people that “their voices are going to be louder in the voting booth than in the street,” said Salah Eddin al-Bashir, a member of Jordan’s Senate.

As for Cairo, I think the real story in Egypt today is the 1952 revolution, led from the top by the military, versus the 2011 revolution, led from below by the people. The Egyptian Army has become a huge patronage system, with business interests and vast perks for its leaders. For Egypt to have a happy ending, the army has to give up some of its power and set up a fair political transition process that gives the Egyptian center the space to build precisely what Mubarak refused to permit — legitimate, independent, modernizing, secular parties — that can compete in free elections against the Muslim Brotherhood, now the only authentic party.

If that happens, I am not the least bit worried about the Muslim Brotherhoods in Jordan or Egypt hijacking the future. Actually, they should be worried. The Brotherhoods have had it easy in a way. They had no legitimate secular political opponents. The regimes prevented that so they could tell the world it is either “us or the Islamists.” As a result, I think, the Islamists have gotten intellectually lazy. All they had to say was “Islam is the answer” or “Hosni Mubarak is a Zionist” and they could win 20 percent of the vote. Now, if Egypt and Jordan can build a new politics, the Muslim Brotherhood will, for the first time, have real competition from the moderate center in both countries — and they know it.

“If leaders don’t think in new ways, there are vacancies for them in museums,” said Zaki Bani Rsheid, political director of Jordan’s Islamic Action Front, the Muslim Brotherhood’s political arm. When I asked Rsheid if his own party was up for this competition, he stopped speaking in Arabic and said to me in English, with a little twinkle in his eye: “Yes we can.”

I hope so, and I also hope that events in Egypt and Jordan finally create a chance for legitimate modern Arab democratic parties to test him.

And now here’s Mr. Kristof who is still in Cairo:

When Westerners watched television images of the popular uprising against President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, they winced at the government’s thuggery toward protesters. But some also flinched at the idea of a popular democracy that might give greater voice to Islamic fundamentalism.

In 1979, a grass-roots uprising in Iran led to an undemocratic regime that oppresses women and minorities and destabilizes the region. In 1989, uprisings in Eastern Europe led to the rise of stable democracies. So if Egyptian protesters overcome the government, would this be 1979 or 1989?

No one can predict with certainty. But let me try to offer a dose of reassurance.

After spending last week here on Tahrir Square, talking to protesters — even as President Mubarak’s thugs attacked our perimeter with bricks, Molotov cocktails, machetes and occasional gunfire — I emerge struck by the moderation and tolerance of most protesters.

Maybe my judgment is skewed because pro-Mubarak thugs tried to hunt down journalists, leading some of us to be stabbed, beaten and arrested — and forcing me to abandon hotel rooms and sneak with heart racing around mobs carrying clubs with nails embedded in them. The place I felt safest was Tahrir Square — “free Egypt,” in the protesters’ lexicon — where I could pull out a camera and notebook and ask anybody any question.

I constantly asked women and Coptic Christians whether a democratic Egypt might end up a more oppressive country. They invariably said no — and looked so reproachfully at me for doubting democracy that I sometimes retreated in embarrassment.

“If there is a democracy, we will not allow our rights to be taken away from us,” Sherine, a university professor, told me (I’m not using full names to protect the protesters). Like many, she said that Americans were too obsessed with the possibility of the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood gaining power in elections.

“We do not worry about the Muslim Brotherhood,” Sherine said. “They might win 25 percent of the votes, but if they do not perform then they will not get votes the next time.”

Sherine has a point. Partly because of Western anxieties, fundamentalist Muslims have rarely run anything — so instead they lead the way in denouncing the corruption, incompetence and brutality of pro-Western autocrats like Mr. Mubarak. The upshot is that they win respect from many ordinary citizens, but my hunch is that they would lose support if they actually tried to administer anything.

For example, in 1990s Yemen, an Islamic party named Islah became part of a coalition government after doing well in elections. As a result, Islah was put in charge of the Education Ministry. Secular Yemenis and outsiders were aghast that fundamentalists might brainwash children, but the Islamists mostly proved that they were incompetent at governing. In the next election, their support tumbled.

It’s true that one of the most common protester slogans described Mr. Mubarak as a stooge of America, and many Egyptians chafe at what they see as a supine foreign policy. I saw one caricature of Mr. Mubarak with a Star of David on his forehead and, separately, a sign declaring: “Tell him in Hebrew, and then he might get the message!” Yet most people sounded pragmatic, favoring continued peace with Israel while also more outspoken support for Palestinians, especially those suffering in Gaza.

I asked an old friend here in Cairo, a woman with Western tastes that include an occasional glass of whiskey, whether the Muslim Brotherhood might be bad for peace. She thought for a moment and said: “Yes, possibly. But, from my point of view, in America the Republican Party is bad for peace as well.”

If democracy gains in the Middle East, there will be some demagogues, nationalists and jingoists, just as there are in America and Israel, and they may make diplomacy more complicated. But remember that it’s Mr. Mubarak’s repression, imprisonment and torture that nurtured angry extremists like Ayman al-Zawahri of Al Qaeda, the right-hand man of Osama bin Laden. It would be tragic if we let our anxieties impede our embrace of freedom and democracy in the world’s most populous Arab nation.

I’m so deeply moved by the grit that Egyptians have shown in struggling against the regime — and by the help that some provided me, at great personal risk, in protecting me from thugs dispatched by America’s ally. Let’s show some faith in the democratic ideals for which these Egyptians are risking their lives.

I think of Hamdi, a businessman who looked pained when I asked whether Egyptian democracy might lead to oppression or to upheavals with Israel or the price of oil. “The Middle East is not only for oil,” he reminded me. “We are human beings, exactly like you people.”

“We don’t hate the American people,” he added. “They are pioneers. We want to be like them. Is that a crime?”

And now, last but not least, here’s Mr. Rich:

A month ago most Americans could not have picked Hosni Mubarak out of a police lineup. American foreign policy, even in Afghanistan, was all but invisible throughout the 2010 election season. Foreign aid is the only federal budget line that a clear-cut majority of Americans says should be cut. And so now — as the world’s most unstable neighborhood explodes before our eyes — does anyone seriously believe that most Americans are up to speed? Our government may be scrambling, but that’s nothing compared to its constituents. After a near-decade of fighting wars in the Arab world, we can still barely distinguish Sunni from Shia.

The live feed from Egypt is riveting. We can’t get enough of revolution video — even if, some nights, Middle West blizzards take precedence over Middle East battles on the networks’ evening news. But more often than not we have little or no context for what we’re watching. That’s the legacy of years of self-censored, superficial, provincial and at times Islamophobic coverage of the Arab world in a large swath of American news media. Even now we’re more likely to hear speculation about how many cents per gallon the day’s events might cost at the pump than to get an intimate look at the demonstrators’ lives.

Perhaps the most revealing window into America’s media-fed isolation from this crisis — small an example as it may seem — is the default assumption that the Egyptian uprising, like every other paroxysm in the region since the Green Revolution in Iran 18 months ago, must be powered by the twin American-born phenomena of Twitter and Facebook. Television news — at once threatened by the power of the Internet and fearful of appearing unhip — can’t get enough of this cliché.

Three days after riot police first used tear gas and water hoses to chase away crowds in Tahrir Square, CNN’s new prime-time headliner, Piers Morgan, declared that “the use of social media” was “the most fascinating aspect of this whole revolution.” On MSNBC that same night, Lawrence O’Donnell interviewed a teacher who had spent a year at the American school in Cairo. “They are all on Facebook,” she said of her former fifth-grade students. The fact that a sampling of fifth graders in the American school might be unrepresentative of, and wholly irrelevant to, the events unfolding in the streets of Cairo never entered the equation.

The social networking hype eventually had to subside for a simple reason: The Egyptian government pulled the plug on its four main Internet providers and yet the revolution only got stronger. “Let’s get a reality check here,” said Jim Clancy, a CNN International anchor, who broke through the bloviation on Jan. 29 by noting that the biggest demonstrations to date occurred on a day when the Internet was down. “There wasn’t any Twitter. There wasn’t any Facebook,” he said. No less exasperated was another knowledgeable on-the-scene journalist, Richard Engel, who set the record straight on MSNBC in a satellite hook-up with Rachel Maddow. “This didn’t have anything to do with Twitter and Facebook,” he said. “This had to do with people’s dignity, people’s pride. People are not able to feed their families.”

No one would deny that social media do play a role in organizing, publicizing and empowering participants in political movements in the Middle East and elsewhere. But as Malcolm Gladwell wrote on The New Yorker’s Web site last week, “surely the least interesting fact” about the Egyptian protesters is that some of them “may (or may not) have at one point or another employed some of the tools of the new media to communicate with one another.” What’s important is “why they were driven to do it in the first place” — starting with the issues of human dignity and crushing poverty that Engel was trying to shove back to center stage.

Among cyber-intellectuals in America, a fascinating debate has broken out about whether social media can do as much harm as good in totalitarian states like Egypt. In his fiercely argued new book, “The Net Delusion,” Evgeny Morozov, a young scholar who was born in Belarus, challenges the conventional wisdom of what he calls “cyber-utopianism.” Among other mischievous facts, he reports that there were only 19,235 registered Twitter accounts in Iran (0.027 percent of the population) on the eve of what many American pundits rebranded its “Twitter Revolution.” More damning, Morozov also demonstrates how the digital tools so useful to citizens in a free society can be co-opted by tech-savvy dictators, police states and garden-variety autocrats to spread propaganda and to track (and arrest) conveniently networked dissidents, from Iran to Venezuela. Hugo Chávez first vilified Twitter as a “conspiracy,” but now has 1.2 million followers imbibing his self-sanctifying Tweets.

This provocative debate isn’t even being acknowledged in most American coverage of the Internet’s role in the current uprisings. The talking-head invocations of Twitter and Facebook instead take the form of implicit, simplistic Western chauvinism. How fabulous that two great American digital innovations can rescue the downtrodden, unwashed masses. That is indeed impressive if no one points out that, even in the case of the young and relatively wired populace of Egypt, only some 20 percent of those masses have Internet access.

That we often don’t know as much about the people in these countries as we do about their Tweets is a testament to the cutbacks in foreign coverage at many news organizations — and perhaps also to our own desire to escape a war zone that has for so long sapped American energy, resources and patience. We see the Middle East on television only when it flares up and then generally in medium or long shot. But there actually is an English-language cable channel — Al Jazeera English — that blankets the region with bureaus and that could have been illuminating Arab life and politics for American audiences since 2006, when it was established as an editorially separate sister channel to its Qatar-based namesake.

Al Jazeera English, run by a 35-year veteran of the Canadian Broadcasting Company, is routinely available in Israel and Canada. It provided coverage of the 2009 Gaza war and this year’s Tunisian revolt when no other television networks would or could. Yet in America, it can be found only in Washington, D.C., and on small cable systems in Ohio and Vermont. None of the biggest American cable and satellite companies — Comcast, DirecTV and Time Warner — offer it.

The noxious domestic political atmosphere fostering this near-blackout is obvious to all. It was made vivid last week when Bill O’Reilly of Fox News went on a tear about how Al Jazeera English is “anti-American.” This is the same “We report, you decide” Fox News that last week broke away from Cairo just as the confrontations turned violent so that viewers could watch Rupert Murdoch promote his new tablet news product at a publicity event at the Guggenheim Museum in New York.

Unable to watch Al Jazeera English, and ravenous for comprehensive and sophisticated 24/7 television coverage of the Middle East otherwise unavailable on television, millions of Americans last week tracked down the network’s Internet stream on their computers. Such was the work-around required by the censorship practiced by America’s corporate gatekeepers. You’d almost think these news-starved Americans were Iron Curtain citizens clandestinely trying to pull in the jammed Voice of America signal in the 1950s — or Egyptians desperately seeking Al Jazeera after Mubarak disrupted its signal last week.

The consequence of a decade’s worth of indiscriminate demonization of Arabs in America — and of the low quotient of comprehensive adult news coverage that might have helped counter it — is the steady rise in Islamophobia. The “Ground Zero” mosque melee has given way to battles over mosques as far removed from Lower Manhattan as California. Soon to come is a national witch hunt — Congressional hearings called by Representative Peter King of New York — into the “radicalization of the American Muslim community.” Given the disconnect between America and the Arab world, it’s no wonder that Americans are invested in the fights for freedom in Egypt and its neighboring dictatorships only up to a point. We’ve been inculcated to assume that whoever comes out on top is ipso facto a jihadist.

This week brings the release of Donald Rumsfeld’s memoir. The eighth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq is to follow. As we took in last week’s fiery video from Cairo — mesmerizing and yet populated by mostly anonymous extras we don’t understand and don’t know — it was hard not to flash back to those glory days of “Shock and Awe.” Those bombardments too were spectacular to watch from a safe distance — no Iraqi faces, voices or bodies cluttered up the shots. We lulled ourselves into believing that democracy and other good things were soon to come. It took months, even years, for us to learn the hard way that in truth we really had no idea what was going on.

 

Dowd, Friedman, Kristof and Rich

January 30, 2011

MoDo is back, with “No Axe to Grind,” in which she says a band of brothers parts ways for more campaign glory.  The Moustache of Wisdom is in Singapore, and sends us “Serious in Singapore” in which he says if Singapore has one thing to teach America, it is about getting governance right.  Mr. Kristof says “Watch Out!  The Assault Vehicle is Loose!” and has a question: What if we treated firearms the way we treat cars, as a public health challenge? Vehicle regulations save lives and are a model for gun regulations.  Go sell that to the NRA…  Mr. Rich, in “The Tea Party Wags the Dog,” says the Republicans, who sold themselves as the uncompromising champions of Tea Party-fueled fiscal austerity, have discovered that most Americans prefer compromise to confrontation.  Here’s MoDo:

There are other historic bromances in the news. King George VI and Lionel Logue. Mark Zuckerberg and Eduardo Saverin. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.

But rarely has there been a partnership that rocked the world the way the Chicago odd couple did. The lean, neat One and the hefty, messy one accomplished what seemed impossible: Getting a black man the nation’s worst job, as The Onion memorably put it.

So it was a parting of sweet sorrow this weekend for The Brand and The Keeper of The Brand.

The unsentimental Barack Obama and the sentimental David Axelrod said goodbye Friday night over an intimate dinner in the White House residence. (Along with their wives.)

The adviser will return to Chicago — to his family; his beloved deli, Manny’s; the re-election ramp-up; and to his pal, Rahm. Obama and Axelrod agreed the West Wing team had gotten too insular. “As one of my colleagues said, the White House is a bit like working in a submarine: it’s better to come up for air,” Axelrod recalled Friday in his small office in a White House consumed with Cairo fires and pelted with Washington snow.

The 55-year-old former newspaperman and political consultant became an early muse to the young poet who bewitched a nation. It was a coup de foudre for the idealistic strategist. “I’ve not made any bones about my feelings about him,” he says, when asked if he’s too adoring. Robert Gibbs jokingly dubbed Axe “the guy who walks in front of the president with rose petals.”

But once Obama got deluged with a torrent of presidential crises, the poetry stopped, and the adviser in charge of the message got some blame.

“Yeah, we were too prosaic,” he said. “We all got sort of dragged down, you know; we were a triage unit. I think all of us have been guilty of neglecting that really important part of the presidency, where you’re operating in the world of ideals and values and vision.”

He continued: “There were a lot of hands on the words, a lot of concern about every nuance. And it is true that this is a place where an errant clause can send markets tumbling and armies marching, and you’re always aware of that.”

The vaunted change gave way to the usual logrolling. “It was, so, you need this guy’s vote and therefore, perhaps we shouldn’t emphasize that issue because they will be less apt to support us on the recovery plan and the country could slip into a depression,” Axelrod said.

The president recaptured some inspirational force in Tucson, his heart clearly touched by 9-year-old Christina Green. Her parents told Obama that their daughter had gotten interested in politics partly because she was drawn to him.

The president is “happier” taking a more optimistic, big-picture approach, Axelrod said, noting, “He’s in the zone in which he’s most comfortable.”

Packing boxes leaned against the office wall. David Plouffe, a more orderly, reserved type — a man who shows his affection for Obama by studying the turnout models for Congressional swing districts — is moving in Monday.

Though Axe can wax endlessly about Washington’s wayward ways, he admitted to friends that it’s harder leaving than he thought, and he plunged into bon voyage parties and dinners. Asked about the cascade of “exclusive” exit interviews he was giving, he warned drolly: “Don’t turn on the Shopping Network!”

“The White House is like fantasy camp for him,” said his charming assistant, Eric Lesser. “He could go to an Afghan war council in the Situation Room, meet Sandy Koufax and have a baseball signed, and have lunch with Caroline Kennedy.”

Axelrod’s final Friday began with Lesser bringing the usual oatmeal. (Now that the boss has lost 25 pounds, Lesser permits him a sprinkling of brown sugar again.) Pointing to some “victimized” ties hanging on the door, the strategist noted: “The one thing I learned on this job is, don’t eat your oatmeal standing up.”

The avid punster offered a parting pun at the 8:30 a.m. meeting — urging everyone to “plow forward” on a plan for genetically produced alfalfa.

Axelrod is not tech-savvy. There was that time he was in such a rush for an early campaign bus that he mistook a bar of hotel soap for his BlackBerry, later pulling the soap out of a pocket to check his e-mails. And the time he killed a BlackBerry with glaze from a donut.

So it was a surprise Friday when he said he was going to open a Twitter account so he could “leap into the debate from time to time.”

I asked Axelrod what he’d like to steal on the way out. Nodding toward the Oval Office, he replied conspiratorially, “He has the Emancipation Proclamation in there. That would be a nice going-away present.”

Now here’s The Moustache of Wisdom:

I am in the Gan Eng Seng Primary School in a middle-class neighborhood of Singapore, and the principal, A. W. Ai Ling, has me visiting a fifth-grade science class. All the 11-year-old boys and girls are wearing junior white lab coats with their names on them. Outside in the hall, yellow police tape has blocked off a “crime scene” and lying on a floor, bloodied, is a fake body that has been murdered. The class is learning about DNA through the use of fingerprints, and their science teacher has turned the students into little C.S.I. detectives. They have to collect fingerprints from the scene and then break them down.

I missed that DNA lesson when I was in fifth grade. When I asked the principal whether this was part of the national curriculum, she said no. She just had a great science teacher, she said, and was aware that Singapore was making a big push to expand its biotech industries and thought it would be good to push her students in the same direction early. A couple of them checked my fingerprints. I was innocent — but impressed.

This was just an average public school, but the principal had made her own connections between “what world am I living in,” “where is my country trying to go in that world” and, therefore, “what should I teach in fifth-grade science.”

I was struck because that kind of linkage is so often missing in U.S. politics today. Republicans favor deep cuts in government spending, while so far exempting Medicare, Social Security and the defense budget. Not only is that not realistic, but it basically says that our nation’s priorities should be to fund retirement homes for older people rather than better schools for younger people and that we should build new schools in Afghanistan before Alabama.

President Obama just laid out a smart and compelling vision of where our priorities should be. But he did not spell out how and where we will have to both cut and invest — really intelligently and at a large scale — to deliver on his vision.

Singapore is tiny and by no means a U.S.-style democracy. Yet, like America, it has a multiethnic population — Chinese, Indian and Malay — with a big working class. It has no natural resources and even has to import sand for building. But today its per capita income is just below U.S. levels, built with high-end manufacturing, services and exports. The country’s economy grew last year at 14.7 percent, led by biomedical exports. How?

If Singapore has one thing to teach America, it is about taking governing seriously, relentlessly asking: What world are we living in and how do we adapt to thrive. “We’re like someone living in a hut without any insulation,” explained Tan Kong Yam, an economist. “We feel every change in the wind or the temperature and have to adapt. You Americans are still living in a brick house with central heating and don’t have to be so responsive.” And we have not been.

Singapore probably has the freest market in the world; it doesn’t believe in import tariffs, minimum wages or unemployment insurance. But it believes regulators need to make sure markets work properly — because they can’t on their own — and it subsidizes homeownership and education to give everyone a foundation to become self-reliant. Singapore copied the German model that strives to put everyone who graduates from high school on a track for higher education, but only about 40 percent go to universities. Others are tracked to polytechnics or vocational institutes, so the vast majority graduate with the skills to get a job, whether it be as a plumber or a scientist.

Explained Ravi Menon, the Permanent Secretary of Singapore’s Ministry of Trade and Industry: “The two ‘isms’ that perhaps best describe Singapore’s approach are: pragmatism — an emphasis on what works in practice rather than abstract theory; and eclecticism — a willingness to adapt to the local context best practices from around the world.”

It is a sophisticated mix of radical free-market and nanny state that requires sophisticated policy makers to implement, which is why politics here is not treated as sports or entertainment. Top bureaucrats and cabinet ministers have their pay linked to top private sector wages, so most make well over $1 million a year, and their bonuses are tied to the country’s annual G.D.P. growth rate. It means the government can attract high-quality professionals and corruption is low.

America never would or should copy Singapore’s less-than-free politics. But Singapore has something to teach us about “attitude” — about taking governing seriously and thinking strategically. We used to do that and must again because our little brick house with central heating is not going to be resistant to the storms much longer.

“There is real puzzlement here about America today,” said Kishore Mahbubani, dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, “because we learned all about what it takes to build a well-functioning society from you. Many of our top officials are graduates of the Kennedy School at Harvard. They just came back home and applied its lessons vigorously.”

Next up we have Mr. Kristof:

Americans are infatuated with guns. And when you’re infatuated, you sometimes can’t think straight. Maybe that’s why, three weeks after the Tucson shootings that shook the nation, we’re still no closer to banning oversize magazines like the 33-bullet model allegedly used there. Maybe it will help clarify issues if we imagine an alternate universe — one in which Americans exhibit their toughness not with assault weapons but with assault vehicles, a world in which our torrid libertarian passion is not for our guns but for our cars. That alternate universe might look like this:

The powerful National Automobile Association warned today that vehicle regulation, such as a ban on assault vehicles, would be “the first step toward totalitarianism.”

“Autos don’t kill people,” declared Hank Magic, a N.A.A. spokesman. “People kill people.” As part of a campaign against auto registration, the N.A.A. has started selling new bumper stickers: “They’ll register my car when they pry the steering wheel from my cold, dead fingers.”

The N.A.A. defends assault vehicles as essential for self-defense and also “loads of fun.”

Taken aback by the furor, the White House denied any interest in banning assault vehicles or registering all vehicles. The White House said that the president was considering more modest steps, such as banning repeat drunken drivers from the roads, prohibiting televisions mounted on the steering wheel and curbs on lethal car accessories that serve no transportation purpose — such as bayonets mounted on the front and back bumpers.

Mr. Magic warned: “Now the White House is trying to prevent Americans from enjoying themselves and defending themselves.” He cited a driver in Florida in 1997 who had been threatened by a carjacking but was able to impale the attacker on his bumper. “Bumper bayonets save lives,” he asserted.

The president also distanced himself from a proposed Transportation Department directive that would curb private tanks on the basis that they are damaging roads and, with road rage on the rise, sometimes rolling over other vehicles. The N.A.A. has denounced the proposal, warning: “Without tanks, how can we keep our children safe?”

“The solution is more tanks, not fewer tanks,” Mr. Magic told a rally yesterday. “If tanks are banned, then only criminals will have tanks!”

Auto safety advocates say that tens of thousands of lives could be saved annually if the president and Congress would register vehicles, require seat belts and require licenses to drive cars. “It’s tough because our country’s history is steeped in automobiles,” said one advocate. “But with political leadership, we can rise above that, as every other civilized country in the world has done.”

O.K., O.K. That’s the end of our alternate history. In reality, of course, we have taken a deadly product — motor vehicles — and systematically made them quite safe. Scientists have figured out how to build roads so as to reduce accidents and have engineered innovations such as air bags to reduce injuries. Public campaigns and improved law enforcement have reduced drunken driving, and graduated licenses for young people have reduced accident rates as well. The death rate per 100 million vehicle miles traveled has fallen by almost three-quarters since the early 1970s, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The trade-off is that we have modestly curbed individual freedom, but we save tens of thousands of lives a year. That’s a model for how we should approach guns as a public health concern.

Granted, the Second Amendment complicates gun regulation (I accept that the framers intended for state militias, and possibly individuals, to have the right to bear flintlocks). But even among those favoring a broader interpretation, the Second Amendment hasn’t prevented bans on machine guns. There are still lines to be drawn, and a prohibition on 33-bullet magazines would be a useful place to start.

If we treat guns as we do cars and build a public health system to address them, here’s what we might do: finance more research so that we have a better sense of which gun safety policies are effective (for example, do gun safes or trigger locks save lives?); crack down on gun retailers who break laws the way we punish stores that sell cigarettes to kids; make serial numbers harder to erase; make gun trafficking a law enforcement priority; limit gun purchases to one per person per month; build a solid database of people who are mentally ill and cannot buy firearms; ban assault weapons; and invest in new technologies to see if we can design “smart guns” that require input of a code or fingerprint to reduce accidents and curb theft.

Particularly after a tragedy like Tucson, why can’t we show the same maturity toward firearms that we show toward vehicles — and save some of the 80 lives a day that we lose to guns?

Beats the hell out of me…  Here’s Mr. Rich:

Any lingering doubts about Barack Obama’s determination to appropriate Ronald Reagan’s political spirit evaporated just before the State of the Union. No American brand is more associated with Reagan than General Electric, and it was that corporation’s chief executive, Jeffrey Immelt, who popped up as the president’s new wingman when the White House rolled out its latest jobs initiative on Jan. 21. Obama’s speech on Tuesday, with its celebration of the nation’s can-do capitalist ingenuity, moved him still closer to Reagan’s sweet spot as a national cheerleader. The president even offered a remix of the old Reagan-era G.E. jingle “We bring good things to life” — now traded up to the grander “We do big things.”

Obama’s rhetorical Morning in America is exquisitely timed to coincide with the Gipper’s centennial — and, of course, the unacknowledged start of his own 2012 re-election campaign. It’s remarkable how completely the G.O.P. has ceded the optimism of its patron saint to the president just as the country prepares for a deluge of Reaganiana. Obama’s post-New Year’s surge past a 50 percent approval rating — well ahead of both Reagan’s and Bill Clinton’s comeback trajectories after their respective midterm shellackings — may have only just begun.

There was no drama to Obama’s address — just a unifying theme, at long last, as he reasserted the role of government in rebooting and rebuilding the country for a new century and putting Americans back to work. The president wisely left any theatrics to his adversaries, and, as always, they were happy to oblige.

This time we were spared a “You lie!” But once Obama segued into a rambling laundry list and the “prom night” bipartisan photo ops lost their comic novelty, the night’s storyline inevitably shifted to the reliable diva antics of Michele Bachmann, the founder of the House’s Tea Party Caucus. For all the Republican male establishment’s harrumphing, it couldn’t derail her plan to hijack the party’s designated State of the Union response with one of her own. More Katherine Harris than Sarah Palin, Bachmann is far more riveting television bait than Paul Ryan, the bland congressman officially assigned the Bobby Jindal memorial slot after the New Jersey governor Chris Christie was savvy enough to take a pass.

The G.O.P. grandees’ consternation was palpable. Earlier in the day Bachmann had dispatched an e-mail announcing that her speech would be carried live by Fox News. But when the time came, Fox relegated the live feed to its Web site, forcing viewers to scurry to CNN, of all places, and delaying its own television recap until after prime time in the East. Rupert Murdoch’s other major organ, The Wall Street Journal, toed the same line, burying Bachmann’s speech in a half-sentence in its print edition the next morning. By then, John Boehner, seconding the disdain of Eric Cantor, was telling reporters that he hadn’t watched Bachmann because of “other obligations.”

What were they all afraid of? The answer cuts to the crux of the right’s plight less than three months after its supposed restoration. Having sold itself in 2010 as the uncompromising champion of Tea Party-fueled fiscal austerity, the enhanced G.O.P. caucus arrived in Washington in 2011 to discover that most Americans prefer compromise to confrontation and favor balanced budgets in name only.

A CNN poll this month found that just one American in five regards deficit reduction as pressing enough to justify cuts to Social Security and Medicare. Only one in four would choose balancing the budget if it meant reducing education programs. Indeed, a new Gallup poll reveals that there’s exactly one category of government spending that a majority of voters favors slicing — foreign aid (which amounts to some 1 percent of the budget). Incredible as it sounds, even current government outlays to science, the arts, farmers and antipoverty programs still enjoy 50 percent-plus support.

Bachmann, like such other newly empowered Tea Party tribunes as Rand Paul and Jim DeMint, rattles G.O.P. leaders because she doesn’t pull punches in specifying how she would wield an ax. The only public opinion she cares about is that of her base. But as it turned out, Bachmann specified no cuts on Tuesday night, if only because she was too busy attacking Obama with unreconstructed pre-Tucson vitriol. In the end, her substance differed little from Ryan’s. She chastised government spending six times (vs. Ryan’s 13), and, like him, mentioned the twin federal money pits — Social Security and Medicare — not once. For a night anyway, these G.O.P. fiscal hawks were actually less forthright about entitlements than the Democratic president, who at least paid lip service to someday finding “a bipartisan solution to strengthen Social Security.”

This couldn’t last — and didn’t. Within 48 hours, other congressional Republicans were filling in some of the blanks left by Bachmann and Ryan, from privatizing Medicare to eliminating the government agency that regulates product safety. Perhaps the fresh crop of G.O.P. revolutionaries has been too busy revisiting 1776 to study the history of Newt Gingrich’s swaggering revolution of 1995. In January of that year, 49 percent of Americans approved and 22 percent opposed the incoming Republican Congress’s plans, according to the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll at the time. But as soon as the plans’ details emerged, those numbers started to flip. By October 35 percent approved of G.O.P. policies and 45 percent did not. That was a month before the first of the two government shutdowns that put Clinton back on top.

But in 2011, it’s not just the revelation of cuts to specific popular programs that threatens to turn Americans against the Republican Congress. New polls show that Americans don’t even buy the principles behind these specifics. To hear the G.O.P. wail about it, you’d think the entire country was obsessed with the federal debt — cited 12 times in Ryan’s under-11-minute speech. But only 18 percent of Americans chose the deficit as a top priority for Washington in the most recent NBC/Journal survey and only 14 percent did in the New York Times/CBS News poll. Job creation was by far the top choice — at 43 percent (Times/CBS) and 34 percent (NBC/Journal).

Health care was a low-ranked priority too in those polls. And for all the right’s apocalyptic rants about the national horror of “Obamacare,” most polls continue to show that Americans are evenly divided about the law and that only a small minority favors its complete repeal (only one in four Americans in the latest Associated Press/GfK survey). The surest indicator that voters are not as inflamed about either the deficit or “Obamacare” as the right keeps claiming can be found in Karl Rove’s Wall Street Journal musings. To argue that Americans share his two obsessions, Rove now is reduced to citing polls from either Fox or a Brand X called Resurgent Republic, which he helpfully identifies as “a group I helped form.”

Obama must be laughing about how the party that spent a year hammering him for focusing on health care over jobs is now committing the same supposed sin. And one can only imagine his astonishment on Tuesday night, when the G.O.P. respondents to his speech each played Jimmy Carter to his Reagan by offering a grim double-feature of malaise and American decline. Hardly had the president extolled record corporate profits and a soaring stock market in his selectively rosy spin on the economy, than Ryan, who has the television manner of a solicitous funeral home director, was darkly warning that America could be the next Greece. Bachmann channeled Glenn Beck to argue that we are living in a nascent police state where government “tells us which light bulbs to buy” (G.E.’s, presumably).

The most revealing moment in either Republican response, though, came from Ryan, who, as chairman of the House Budget Committee, implicitly threatened another government shutdown, or catastrophic fiscal meltdown, if the House majority doesn’t get its way. “The president is now urging Congress to increase the debt limit,” he said with distaste, referring to the vote required possibly as soon as March to allow the Treasury to keep paying its bills. Should the House majority hold that vote hostage to its vision of the budget, it will throw the markets into turmoil and upend our still-embryonic recovery.

It tells you all you need to know about Ryan’s tilt to the right that, for all his professed disapproval of increasing the debt limit during an Obama administration, he voted to do so twice himself during the gushing deficits of the Bush years. Funny he didn’t mention that Tuesday night. It tells you all you need to know about the G.O.P.’s overall tilt to the right that not just the Tea Party is making barely veiled threats to play dangerous political games with the debt limit. Mitch McConnell and Cantor did so last weekend, as have a plethora of potential 2012 presidential candidates, from Tim Pawlenty to Gingrich. The Bachmann-Beck-Palin tail is now firmly wagging the Republican dog.

Like virtually every other week since the shellacking, the State of the Union week was another salutary one for Obama. But the state of the union itself could yet be in the hands of radicals whose eagerness to see the president fail is outstripped only by their zeal to make an ideological point, even if it forces America into default.

 

Kristof and Rich

January 16, 2011

MoDo is off today, and The Moustache of Wisdom is on a book tour.  In “China’s Winning Schools?” Mr. Kristof says the real strategic challenge isn’t Chinese fighter aircraft. It’s China’s focus on education.  Mr. Rich, in “No One Listened to Gabrielle Giffords,” says in March 2010, few of our leaders wanted to see what Giffords saw — that the vandalism and the death threats were part of a tide of insurrectionism that had been rising since the final weeks of the 2008 campaign.  But, but, but…  this was the work of a lone nut!  NO ONE COULD HAVE ANTICIPATED…  Here’s Mr. Kristof, writing from Beijing:

An international study published last month looked at how students in 65 countries performed in math, science and reading. The winner was: Confucianism!

At the very top of the charts, in all three fields and by a wide margin, was Shanghai. Three of the next top four performers were also societies with a Confucian legacy of reverence for education: Hong Kong, Singapore and South Korea. The only non-Confucian country in the mix was Finland.

The United States? We came in 15th in reading, 23rd in science and 31st in math.

I’ve been visiting schools in China and Asia for more than 20 years (and we sent our own kids briefly to schools in Japan, which also bears a Confucian imprint), and I’ve spent much of that time either envious or dumbfounded. I’ll never forget pulling our 2-year-old son out of his Tokyo nursery school so we could visit the States and being handed a form in which we had to list: “reason for proposed vacation.”

Education thrives in China and the rest of Asia because it is a top priority — and we’ve plenty to learn from that.

Granted, Shanghai’s rise to the top of the global charts is not representative of all China, for Shanghai has the country’s best schools. Yet it’s also true that China has made remarkable improvements in the once-awful schools in peasant areas.

Just 20 years ago, children often dropped out of elementary school in rural areas. Teachers sometimes could barely speak standard Mandarin, which, in theory, is the language of instruction.

These days, even in backward rural areas, most girls and boys alike attend high school. College isn’t unusual. And the teachers are vastly improved. In my Chinese-American wife’s ancestral village — a poor community in southern China — the peasant children are a grade ahead in math compared with my children at an excellent public school in the New York area. That seems broadly true of math around the country.

For a socialist system that hesitates to fire people, China has also been surprisingly adept — more so than America — at dealing with ineffective teachers. Chinese principals can’t easily dismiss teachers, but they can get extra training for less effective teachers, or if that doesn’t work, push them into other jobs.

“Bad teachers can always be made gym teachers,” a principal in the city of Xian explained to me as she showed me around her kindergarten. In China, school sports and gym just don’t matter.

(That kindergarten exemplified another of China’s strengths: excellent early childhood education, typically beginning at age 2. Indeed, the only element of China’s education system that really falters badly is the university system. Colleges are third-rate and should be a national disgrace.)

But this is the paradox: Chinese themselves are far less impressed by their school system. Almost every time I try to interview a Chinese about the system here, I hear grousing rather than praise. Many Chinese complain scathingly that their system kills independent thought and creativity, and they envy the American system for nurturing self-reliance — and for trying to make learning exciting and not just a chore.

In Xian, I visited Gaoxin Yizhong, perhaps the city’s best high school, and the students and teachers spoke wistfully of the American emphasis on clubs, arts and independent thought. “We need to encourage more creativity,” explained Hua Guohong, a chemistry teacher. “We should learn from American schools.”

One friend in Guangdong Province says he will send his children to the United States to study because the local schools are a “creativity-killer.” Another sent his son to an international school to escape what he likens to “programs for trained seals.” Private schools are sprouting everywhere, and many boast of a focus on creativity.

For my part, I think the self-criticisms are exactly right, but I also deeply admire the passion for education and the commitment to making the system better. And while William Butler Yeats was right that “education is not filling a bucket but lighting a fire,” it’s also true that it’s easier to ignite a bonfire if there’s fuel in the bucket.

The larger issue is that the greatest strength of the Chinese system is the Confucian reverence for education that is steeped into the culture. In Chinese schools, teachers are much respected, and the most admired kid is often the brain rather than the jock or class clown.

Americans think of China’s strategic challenge in terms of, say, the new Chinese stealth fighter aircraft. But the real challenge is the rise of China’s education system and the passion for learning that underlies it. We’re not going to become Confucians, but we can elevate education on our list of priorities without relinquishing creativity and independent thought.

That’s what we did in 1957 after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik. These latest test results should be our 21st-century Sputnik.

But it won’t happen that way.  There will be another round of tax cuts and budget cuts instead, because USA! USA! USA! taxation is theft!!11!!1!  Here’s Mr. Rich:

Of the many truths in President Obama’s powerful Tucson speech, none was more indisputable than his statement that no one can know what is in a killer’s mind. So why have we spent so much time debating exactly that?

The answer is classic American denial. It was easier to endlessly parse Jared Lee Loughner’s lunatic library — did he favor “The Communist Manifesto” or Ayn Rand? — than confront the larger and harsher snapshot of our current landscape that emerged after his massacre. A week on, that denial is becoming even more entrenched. As soon as the president left the podium Wednesday night, we started shifting into our familiar spin-dry post-tragedy cycle of the modern era — speedy “closure,” followed by a return to business as usual, followed by national amnesia.

If we learn nothing from this tragedy, we are back where we started. And where we started was with two years of accelerating political violence — actual violence, not to be confused with violent language — that struck fear into many, not the least of whom was Gabrielle Giffords.

For the sake of this discussion, let’s stipulate that Loughner was a “lone nutjob” who had never listened to Glenn Beck or been a card-carrying member of either the Tea or Communist parties. Let’s also face another tragedy: The only two civic reforms that might have actually stopped him — tighter gun control and an effective mental health safety net — won’t materialize even now.

Gun and ammunition sales spiked last week, especially for the specific varieties given the Loughner imprimatur. No editorial — or bloodbath — will move Congress to enact serious gun control (which Giffords herself never advocated and Obama has rarely pushed since 2008). Enhanced mental health coverage is also a nonstarter when the highest G.O.P. priority is to repeal the federal expansion of health care. In Arizona, cutbacks are already so severe that terminally ill patients are being denied life-saving organ transplants.

The other inescapable reality was articulated by Sarah Palin, believe it or not, in her “blood libel” video. Speaking of acrimonious partisan debate, she asked, “When was it less heated — back in those calm days when political figures literally settled their differences with dueling pistols?” She’s right. Calls for civility will have no more lasting impact on the “tone” of American discourse now than they did after the J.F.K. assassination or Oklahoma City. Especially not in an era when technology allows all 300 million Americans a cost-free megaphone for unmediated rants.

Did Loughner see Palin’s own most notorious contribution to the rancorous tone — her March 2010 Web graphic targeting Congressional districts? We have no idea — nor does it matter. But Giffords did. Her reaction to it — captured in an interview she did back then with Chuck Todd of MSNBC — was the most recycled, if least understood, video of last week.

The week of that interview began with the House passing the health care bill on Sunday. Within hours, on Monday morning, vandals smashed the front door of Giffords’s office in Tucson. The Palin “target” map (and the accompanying Twitter dictum to “RELOAD”) went up on Tuesday, just one day after that vandalism — timing that was at best tone-deaf and at worst nastily provocative. Not just Giffords, but at least three other of the 20 members of Congress on the Palin map were also hit with vandalism or death threats.

In her MSNBC interview that Wednesday, Giffords said that Palin had put the “crosshairs of a gun sight over our district,” adding that “when people do that, they’ve got to realize there’s consequences to that action.” Chuck Todd then asked Giffords if “in fairness, campaign rhetoric and war rhetoric have been interchangeable for years.” She responded that colleagues who had been in the House “20, 30 years” had never seen vitriol this bad. But Todd moved on, and so did the Beltway. What’s the big deal about a little broken glass? Few wanted to see what Giffords saw — that the vandalism and death threats were the latest consequences of a tide of ugly insurrectionism that had been rising since the final weeks of the 2008 campaign and that had threatened to turn violent from the start.

Giffords’s first brush with that reality had occurred some seven months before her office was vandalized — in the red-hot health care fever of August 2009. She had held another “Congress on Your Corner” meeting, at a Safeway in the town of Douglas. There the crowd’s rage and the dropping of a gun by one attendee prompted aides worried about her safety to summon the police. The Tucson Tea Party co-founder, Trent Humphries, told The Arizona Daily Star afterward that this was a lie, that “nobody was threatening Gabby.” After Loughner’s massacre, Humphries was still faulting her — this time for holding “an event in full view of the public with no security whatsoever.”

Others on the right spent last week loudly protesting the politicization of tragedy. What was most revealing was how often they tried to rewrite the history of previous incidents having nothing to do with Loughner. A Palin aide claimed that her target map was only invoking a “surveyor’s symbol,” not gun sights. A Tucson Tea Party leader announced that the attack on Giffords’s office (never solved by the police) was probably caused by skateboarding kids. Mike Pence, a potential G.O.P. “values” candidate for president, told the C-Span audience that those bearing firearms at Congressional town hall meetings and Obama events (including one in Arizona that August of 2009) were no different from anti-Bush demonstrators “waving placards.”

For macabre absurdity, it would seem hard to top Newt Gingrich, who wailed about leftists linking Loughner to the right as if he had not famously blamed a psychotic double-murder of 1994, Susan Smith’s drowning of her two sons in South Carolina, on “Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society.” But Representative Trent Franks, Republican of Arizona, did top Newt. On “Meet the Press” last Sunday he implored us to “treat each other as fellow children of God” without acknowledging (or being questioned about) his 2009 diatribe branding Obama as “an enemy of humanity.”

As the president said in Tucson, we lack not just civil discourse, but honest discourse. Much of last week’s televised bloviation was dishonest, dedicated to the pious, feel-good sentiment that both sides are equally culpable for the rage of the past two years. To construct this false equivalency, every left-leaning Web site and Democratic politician’s record was dutifully culled for incendiary invective. If that’s the standard, then both sides are equally at fault — rhetoric can indeed be as violent on the left as on the right.

But that sidesteps the issue. This isn’t about angry blog posts or verbal fisticuffs. Since Obama’s ascension, we’ve seen repeated incidents of political violence. Just a short list would include the 2009 killing of three Pittsburgh police officers by a neo-Nazi Obama-hater; last year’s murder-suicide kamikaze attack on an I.R.S. office in Austin, Tex.; and the California police shootout with an assailant plotting to attack an obscure liberal foundation obsessively vilified by Beck.

Obama said, correctly, on Wednesday that “a simple lack of civility” didn’t cause the Tucson tragedy. It didn’t cause these other incidents either. What did inform the earlier violence — including the vandalism at Giffords’s office — was an antigovernment radicalism as rabid on the right now as it was on the left in the late 1960s. That Loughner was likely insane, with no coherent ideological agenda, does not mean that a climate of antigovernment hysteria has no effect on him or other crazed loners out there. Nor does Loughner’s insanity mitigate the surge in unhinged political zealots acting out over the last two years. That’s why so many — on both the finger-pointing left and the hyper-defensive right — automatically assumed he must be another of them.

Have politicians stoked the pre-Loughner violence by advocating that citizens pursue “Second Amendment remedies” or be “armed and dangerous”? We don’t know. What’s more disturbing is what Republican and conservative leaders have not said. Their continuing silence during two years of simmering violence has been chilling.

A few unexpected voices have expressed alarm. After an antigovernment gunman struck at Washington’s Holocaust museum in June 2009, Shepard Smith of Fox News noted the rising vitriol in his e-mail traffic and warned on air that more “amped up” Americans could be “getting the gun out.” The former Bush administration speechwriter David Frum took on the “reckless right” that August, citing the incident at the Giffords Safeway event. But when a Department of Homeland Security report warned of far-right extremism and attacks by “lone wolves” that same summer, Gingrich called it a smear and John Boehner demanded an apology.

Last week a conservative presidential candidate, Tim Pawlenty, timidly said it wouldn’t be his “style” to use Palin’s target map, but was savaged so viciously by his own camp that he immediately retreated. A senior Republican senator told Politico that he saw the Tucson bloodbath as a “cautionary tale” for his party, yet refused to be named.

What are they and their peers so afraid of? No doubt that someone might reload — the same fears that prompted Gabrielle Giffords to speak up, calmly but firmly, last March. Unless and until they can match her courage and speak out too, it’s hard to see what will change.

 

Kristof and Rich

January 9, 2011

MoDo and The Moustache of Wisdom are off.  Mr. Kristof, in “China Rises and Checkmates,” says the human face of China as No. 1 isn’t some Communist hack, but a 16-year-old girl who’s the new women’s world chess champion.  Mr. Rich, in “Let Obama’s Reagan Revolution Begin,” says if Obama actually read that biography of Ronald Reagan that he took on vacation, his comeback could have legs.  Here’s Mr. Kristof:

If there’s a human face on Rising China, it belongs not to some Politburo chief, not to an Internet tycoon, but to a quiet, mild-mannered teenage girl named Hou Yifan.

Ms. Hou (whose name is pronounced Ho Ee-fahn) is an astonishing phenomenon: at 16, she is the new women’s world chess champion, the youngest person, male or female, ever to win a world championship. And she reflects the way China — by investing heavily in education and human capital, particularly in young women — is increasingly having an outsize impact on every aspect of the world.

Napoleon is famously said to have declared, “When China wakes, it will shake the world.” That is becoming true even in spheres that China historically has had little connection with, like chess, basketball, rare earth minerals, cyber warfare, space exploration and nuclear research.

This is a process that Miss Hou exemplifies. Only about 1 percent of Chinese play chess, and China has never been a chess power. But since 1991, China has produced four women’s world chess champions, and Ms. Hou is the one with by far the most promise.

At this point, I have to put my sensitive male ego aside. You see, Ms. Hou gamely agreed to play me after I interviewed her. She had just flown into Beijing after winning the world championship, and she was exhausted — and she shredded me in 21 moves.

Most dispiriting, when I was teetering at the abyss near the end of the game, her coach nudged her and suggested mischievously that we should switch sides. Ms. Hou would inherit my impossible position — and the gleam in her coach’s eye suggested that she would still win.

I protested that I could survive being beaten on the chess board by a schoolgirl. But to be toyed with, like a mouse by a cat — that would be too much. Ms. Hou nodded compassionately and checkmated me a few moves later.

At 14 she became the youngest female grandmaster ever. She’s still so young that it’s unclear just how remarkable she will become.

Women in general haven’t been nearly as good at chess as men, and the world’s top women are mostly ranked well below the top men — but Ms. Hou could be an exception. She is the only female chess player today considered to have a shot at becoming one of the top few players in the world, male or female.

Cynics sometimes suggest that China’s rise as a world power is largely a matter of government manipulation of currency rates and trade rules, and there’s no doubt that there’s plenty of rigging or cheating going on in every sphere. But China has also done an extraordinarily good job of investing in its people and in spreading opportunity across the country. Moreover, perhaps as a legacy of Confucianism, its citizens have shown a passion for education and self-improvement — along with remarkable capacity for discipline and hard work, what the Chinese call “chi ku,” or “eating bitterness.”

Ms. Hou dined on plenty of bitterness in working her way up to champion. She grew up in the boondocks, in a county town in Jiangsu Province, and her parents did not play chess. But they lavished attention on her and spoiled her, as parents of only children (“little emperors”) routinely do in China.

China used to be one of the most sexist societies in the world — with female infanticide, foot binding, and concubinage — but it turned a corner and now is remarkably good at giving opportunities to girls as well as boys. When Ms. Hou’s parents noticed her interest in a chess board at a store, they promptly bought her a chess set — and then hired a chess tutor for her.

Ye Jiangchuan, the chief coach of the national men’s and women’s teams, told me that he played Ms. Hou when she was 9 years old — and was stunned. “I saw that this kid was special,” he told me, and he invited her to move to Beijing to play with the national teams. Three years later she was the youngest girl ever to compete in the world chess championships.

It will be many, many decades before China can challenge the United States as the overall “No. 1” in the world, for we have a huge lead and China still must show that it can transition to a more open and democratic society. But already in discrete areas — its automobile market, carbon emissions and now women’s chess — China is emerging as No. 1 here and there, and that process will continue.

There’s a lesson for us as well. China’s national commitment to education, opportunity and eating bitterness — those are qualities that we in the West might emulate as well. As you know after you’ve been checkmated by Hou Yifan.

Now here’s Mr. Rich:

Barack Obama’s Christmas resurrection was so miraculous that even a birther or two may start believing the guy is a Christian.

Nothing captured the president’s sudden reversal of fortune more vividly than the Linda Blair-like head spin of the conservative pundit Charles Krauthammer, who pronounced the Obama agenda “dead” on Fox News on Nov. 3 only to lead the bipartisan media hordes anointing him “the new comeback kid” six weeks later. Last week Obama’s Gallup job approval rating fleetingly hit 50 percent for the first time in eight months. Even in post-shellacking mid-December, polls found that Americans still trusted him more than Washington’s Republican leaders to fix the nation’s ills — health care included, according to the ABC News-Washington Post survey on that question.

As the do-something lame-duck Congress’s triumphs were toted up, the White House pointedly floated the news that the president was meeting with Reagan administration veterans (David Gergen, Ken Duberstein) and taking Lou Cannon’s authoritative biography “President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime” on vacation. Reagan, of course, was also pummeled (though a bit less so) in his maiden midterms of 1982, then carried 49 states in his 1984 re-election landslide. In January 1983, Reagan’s approval rating was much worse than Obama’s — 35 percent. So was the unemployment rate (10.4 percent vs. our current 9.4 percent) as Americans struggled to recover from what was then the deepest economic downturn since the Great Depression.

My poll-crunching Times colleague Nate Silver has already poured cold water on the fantasy that history is fated to repeat itself in 2012. His numbers show zero correlation between presidents’ post-midterms popularity and their fates two years later. But if Obama actually read Cannon, his comeback could have legs. It’s full of leadership lessons that will be particularly useful in outfoxing political adversaries who seem not to have consulted so much as a picture book about the president they claim as their patron saint.

The right’s Stepford fetishization of Reagan reached a farcical apotheosis last week when a moderator of a debate for the Republican National Committee chairmanship tried to curtail the ritualistic bloviation by asking aspirants to name their political hero “aside from President Reagan.” This trick question so nonplussed one candidate that he coughed up “Ludwig von Mises of FreedomWorks.” Another flustered respondent chose Margaret Thatcher, perhaps fearing it would be politically incorrect to venture an answer more than one degree of separation from the big Gipper.

The present-day radicals donning Reagan drag, led by Sarah Palin, seem not to know, as Cannon writes, that their hero lurched “from excessive tax cuts to corrective tax increases disguised as tax reform” and “submitted eight unbalanced budgets to Congress in succession.” Reagan made no promise whatsoever of a balanced budget in the document that codified Reaganomics, his White House’s 281-page message to Congress in February 1981. The historian Gil Troy has calculated that spending on entitlement programs more than doubled on Reagan’s watch. America slid into debtor-nation status, and Americans “went from owing 16 cents for every dollar in national income in 1981” to owing 44 cents per dollar in 1988.

It’s also likely that Reagan would have drifted off — like most Americans — during the pretentious recitation of the Constitution in the House. He prided himself on serving as a true citizen-politician and, as Cannon writes, saw no problem in being “completely ignorant of even civics-book information about how bills were passed.”

What Reagan did know was how to deliver a message, even if that message belied his policies or actions or the facts. While perhaps no politician can ever duplicate Reagan’s brand of sunny and homespun (if Hollywood-honed) geniality, Obama has his own radiance when he wants to turn it on — a quality Reagan opponents like Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale lacked and that is beyond the imagination of frothing-at-the-mouth Tea Partiers. But Obama is less adept at keeping his messages simple, consistent and crystal-clear.

In a particularly instructive passage, Cannon tells of Reagan’s habit of endlessly recycling an inspirational World War II anecdote that, as the press discovered, was a movie-spawned fiction. His White House spokesman, Larry Speakes, was only half-joking when he deflected critics with the old saw “if you tell the same story five times, it’s true.” Unlike Reagan, Obama doesn’t invent or fantasize. But he has trouble telling even some true stories five times — and telling them well — which is why he now has to resell the health care bill more than nine months after he signed it.

Reagan’s talents also included an ability to pick adversaries and hammer them relentlessly — without losing his cool — whether air-traffic controllers or the “evil empire.” Though Obama ultimately stopped vilifying the Bush administration for the economic disaster he inherited, Reagan never backed off bashing the Democrats and the 30-year Great Society “binge” for the fiscal woes of his America. Reagan got away with it because he never sounded like a whiner, and because he paired his invective with an optimism that bleached out any pettiness. A former Democrat, after all, he wisely chose F.D.R. as his political model.

That pitch-perfect showmanship, timing and salesmanship (his father was a salesman) were in Reagan’s résumé and bones. Obama doesn’t have that training, but he was a great communicator when it came to selling his own story in the campaign, heaven knows. He has rarely rekindled that touch in the White House — even during his December run of good fortune. His recent Congressional victories should not obscure the reality that, the tax-cut deal notwithstanding, he still disappeared at key moments when he should have led the charge.

Nowhere was he more AWOL than in the battle over aiding 9/11 emergency workers poisoned by the toxic debris at ground zero. Supporting a bill to reward brave Americans who paid with their health or their lives to serve others was tantamount to voting for the flag — a far more patriotic gesture than, say, reading aloud the Constitution. Yet Republicans in Congress caricatured it as a “slush fund” inviting “abuse, fraud and waste” (Lamar Smith of Texas, the incoming chairman of the House Judiciary Committee) and “an expansive new health care entitlement program” (Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma). All 41 Republicans present in the Senate voted to block its passage while giving top priority to protecting tax cuts for the superrich. But rather than lead this easily winnable battle from uncontestable high ground, the White House remained largely silent, releasing only a written statement of support for the bill. The president never spoke publicly about it at all.

Obama didn’t have to demagogue the issue. He didn’t have to pitch a fit, as Anthony Weiner, the New York congressman, did for the benefit of C-Span cameras last summer. But it’s hard to imagine a more clear-cut teaching moment for a president to explain how intransigent right-wing ideology can violate fundamental American values of fairness and sacrifice. Instead, that job fell to others, which is why a novice senator, Kirsten Gillibrand, and a late-night television star, Jon Stewart, could be found taking a victory lap over the bill’s passage on “The Daily Show” last week: they had stepped into the leadership vacuum left by Obama.

With his vastly reduced Capitol Hill cohort, Obama’s next two years are going to be less about pushing bills through Congress and more about pushing the presidency to the max. Win or lose, he’ll have to be more vocal in other fights, starting with immigration reform, where bedrock American principles of fairness are at stake. He’ll also have to finally find a unifying story to unite his economic philosophy, for if he never defines Obamanomics, his opponents will keep labeling it as tax-and-spend socialism instead.

And surely he must start wielding Reaganesque humor at the rapidly thickening blizzard of Tea Party hypocrisies. A “there you go again” — or two or three or four — will come in handy when mocking antigovernment zealots like the newly elected Representative Vicky Hartzler of Missouri, who last week repeatedly ducked Diane Sawyer’s simple inquiry as to whether she would end federal farm subsidies (her family farm has collected some $775,000) now that she’s in Washington.

In the 1984 election, The Times’s exit poll found that by far the single biggest factor in Reagan’s landslide was the perception that the economy had turned around and that unemployment, though still high (7.2 percent), was falling rapidly. The second most important factor was leadership. A September poll had showed that Americans gave Mondale more credit for caring about people and for having a vision for America’s future. But the perception that Reagan was a strong leader, “forceful” rather than “cautious,” trumped all else. He was affable, sure, and made compromises to get legislation on the scoreboard, but he was not a bipartisan wuss. Voters rewarded his campaign slogan, “Leadership That’s Working,” even though his Morning-in-America agenda was a Madison Avenue homily, not a program for leading America anywhere specific in his second term.

At this point the speed of our own halting recovery is not in the president’s hands. The ability to remake his style of leadership still is. But that makeover can come only from him, not from old Clinton hands in a reshuffled West Wing. Without it, the miracle of his Christmas resurrection could be over by Easter.

 

Dowd, Friedman, Kristof and Rich

December 26, 2010

In “Because the Night Belongs to Her” MoDo says a punk-rock poet tells a story with operatic grandeur.  The Moustache of Wisdom, in “Cut Here. Invest There.”, says in the 21st century, America cannot afford the politics of irresponsible profligacy or mindless austerity. Atlanta’s mayor, Kasim Reed, is one example of the new breed of leader.  Mr. Kristof addresses “The Big (Military) Taboo,” and says when the U.S. spends almost as much on arms as every other country in the world combined, we’re overinvesting in our military.  Gee — ya think?  Mr. Rich asks “Who Killed the Disneyland Dream?” and says for all the inequities of America in 1956, economic equality seemed within reach, at least for the vast middle class.  Here’s MoDo:

I met Patti Smith briefly at the opening of the Metropolitan Opera’s “Ring” cycle last fall.

She was wearing a black sequined jacket, white ruffly shirt and black pants, a glam version of the “gothic crow,” as Salvador Dali once described her. Her salt-and-chocolate mane was hanging in an untamed pony tail. She seemed shy and modest but fun and self-possessed, ever the cool chick.

In an era when many women resist aging, preferring to frantically pursue scary, puffy replicas of their 25-year-old selves, and at a time when women still struggle to balance sexuality and power, the 63-year-old Smith radiated magic.

My cultural lacunae included the iconic New York punk rock singer, poet and artist who dropped out for a decade to raise two kids with guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith in Detroit. I had never seen her perform and didn’t know she was a jumble of quirky contradictions, passionate about Arthur Rimbaud and “Law & Order: SVU,” William Blake and Jimi Hendrix, grand opera and cheap talismans, listening to Glenn Gould and writing detective novels.

Beyond the jangly ruckuses about explicit photos of naked men, I didn’t know much about Robert Mapplethorpe either.

So I was startled to pick up Smith’s memoirs, which won a National Book Award last month, and delve into a spellbinding love story.

For anyone who has had a relationship where the puzzle pieces seem perfect but don’t fit — so, all of us — “Just Kids” is achingly beautiful. It’s “La Bohème” at the Chelsea Hotel; a mix, she writes, of “Funny Face” and “Faust,” two hungry artists figuring out whom to love, how to make art and when to part.

It unfolds in that romantic time before we were swallowed by Facebook, flat screens, texts, tweets and Starbucks; when people still talked all night and listened to jukeboxes and LPs and read actual books and drank black coffee.

Smith describes the wondrous odyssey of taking the bus from South Jersey and meeting a curly-haired soul mate who wanted to help her soar, even as the pair painfully grappled over the years with Mapplethorpe’s sexuality and his work’s brutality.

“Robert took areas of dark human consent and made them into art,” Smith writes about the former altar boy from Floral Park, Queens, who was bedeviled by Catholic concepts of good and evil. “Robert sought to elevate aspects of male experience, to imbue homosexuality with mysticism.”

When he began exploring his own desires in San Francisco, she said it was an education for her too.

“I had thought a man turned homosexual when there was not the right woman to save him, a misconception I had developed from the tragic union of Rimbaud and the poet Paul Verlaine,” she writes, adding that she mistakenly considered homosexuality “a poetic curse” that “irrevocably meshed with affectation and flamboyance.”

As they redefined their love, she writes, “I learned from him that often contradiction is the clearest way to truth.”

When the penniless Smith first gets to New York she sleeps in Central Park and graveyards. Once she meets Robert, they shoplift occasionally and scrape by. They are too poor to go to museums together; one goes in and describes it afterward to the other waiting outside. They share Coney Island hot dogs. Robert works as a hustler for money.

She encourages the reluctant Mapplethorpe to take photographs; he shoots the covers for her poetry book and mythic first album, “Horses.” He teases her when she becomes famous faster.

Smith vividly recalls a psychedelic bohemia in downtown New York in the volcanic late ’60s and ’70s when you could feel “a sense of hastening.”

She transports you back to the Coney Island freak shows and the Chelsea Hotel, “a doll’s house in the Twilight Zone,” as she calls the refuge for artists from Dylan Thomas to Bob Dylan. Glittery cameos include former lover Sam Shepard, Gregory Corso, Salvador Dali, Viva, William Burroughs, Grace Slick, Janis Joplin, Allen Ginsberg, Andy Warhol and her idol, Hendrix.

The more commercial and society-minded Robert dreamed of breaking into Warhol’s circle, but Patti was suspicious. “I hated the soup and felt little for the can,” she writes. “I preferred an artist who transformed his time, not mirrored it.”

When Robert was ravaged by AIDS, a distraught Patti drove and flew back and forth from Detroit to New York to hold and soothe him.

She wrote him a letter, recalling that he once said that art was like “holding hands with God.” Urging him to grip that hand hard, she concluded: “Of all your work, you are still your most beautiful.”

The March morning in 1989 that he died, at 42, she woke up to hear an opera playing on an arts channel on a TV that had been left on. It was Tosca declaring her passion for the painter Cavaradossi, singing “I have lived for love, I have lived for Art.” It was her goodbye.

Here’s The Moustache of Wisdom, who’s in Atlanta:

As I’m about to start a four-month book leave, I need to get a few things off my chest: President Obama understood, rightly, that our economy needed more stimulus, so, given the G.O.P.’s insistence on extending the Bush tax cuts for all, he struck the best deal he could. The country, we are told, is now in a better mood, seeing our two parties work together. I, alas, am not in a better mood.

I’ll be in a better mood when I see our two parties cooperating to do something hard. Borrowing billions more from China to give ourselves more tax cuts does not qualify. Make no mistake, President Obama has enacted an enormous amount in two years. It’s impressive. But the really hard stuff lies ahead: taking things away. We are leaving an era where to be a mayor, governor, senator or president was, on balance, to give things away to people. And we are entering an era where to be a leader will mean, on balance, to take things away from people. It is the only way we’ll get our fiscal house in order before the market, brutally, does it for us.

In my book, the leaders who will deserve praise in this new era are those who develop a hybrid politics that persuades a majority of voters to cut where we must so we can invest where we must. To survive in the 21st century, America can no longer afford a politics of irresponsible profligacy. But to thrive in the 21st century — to invest in education, infrastructure and innovation — America cannot afford a politics of mindless austerity either.

The politicians we need are what I’d call “pay-as-you-go progressives” — those who combine fiscal prudence with growth initiatives to make their cities, their states or our country great again. Everyone knows the first rule of holes: When you’re in one, stop digging. But people often forget the second rule of holes: You can only grow your way out. You can’t borrow your way out.

One of the best of this new breed of leaders is Atlanta’s inspiring mayor, 41-year-old Kasim Reed. A former Georgia state senator, Reed won Atlanta’s mayoral race in December 2009 by 714 votes. The day he took office, Atlanta had $7.4 million in reserves, an out-of-control budget and was laying off so many firefighters there were only three personnel on a truck, below national standards. A year later, it has $58 million in reserves, and Reed has a 70 percent approval rating — which he earned the hard way.

Reed started his reforms by enlisting two professionals, not cronies, to help run the city: Peter Aman, a partner at Bain & Company, a consultancy, to be his chief operating officer; and John Mellott, a former publisher of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, to lead a pension review panel. Atlanta has 7,000 city employees, but today, says Reed, “you can’t hire a receptionist” without it “personally being approved by Aman.”

Then Reed tackled the city’s biggest problem: runaway pensions, which were eating up 20 percent of tax revenues and are rising. In the early 2000s, the police, fire and municipal workers’ unions persuaded the city to raise all their pensions — and make it retroactive. So, between 2001 and 2009, Atlanta’s unfunded pension obligations grew from $321 million to $1.484 billion. Yikes.

Reed couldn’t cut existing pensions without lawsuits, but he cut back pensions for all new employees to pre-2000 levels and raised the vesting period to 15 years from 10. When union picketers swarmed city hall to protest, Reed invited them all into his office — in shifts — where he patiently explained, with charts, that without pension reform everyone’s pensions would go bust.

By getting the city’s budget under control, Reed then had some money to invest in more police officers and, what he wanted most, to reopen the 16 recreation centers and swimming pools in the city’s most disadvantaged neighborhoods, which had been shuttered for lack of money. “People were shooting dice in the empty pools,” he said. Local businesses have now offered to finance after-school job-skills programs in the reopened centers. Cut here. Invest there.

Reed combines a soft touch with a hard head. I like how he talks about both Atlanta and America: “We are not going to be what we have been for the last 50 years if we don’t change, and everybody in a position to have more than two people listening to them needs to be saying that, because the time we have to make the adjustments is running out. We need to get on with it. Whether it’s the deficit, education or investing in young people or immigration — we are not tackling [them] in the fundamental ways required. We’re just doing it piecemeal. We’re just playing and surviving. And we need to be very clear where just surviving takes you: it takes you to a lifestyle of just survival.”

In a recent address, Reed elaborated: “The bottom line is that for the country to do and to be what we have been … there must be a generation tough enough to stick out its chin and take the hit. … It is time to begin having the types of mature and honest conversations necessary to deal effectively with the new economic realities we are facing as a nation. We simply cannot keep kicking the can down the road.”

Four month book tour leave?  What a lovely Christmas gift for us!  Next up is Mr. Kristof:

We face wrenching budget cutting in the years ahead, but there’s one huge area of government spending that Democrats and Republicans alike have so far treated as sacrosanct.

It’s the military/security world, and it’s time to bust that taboo. A few facts:

• The United States spends nearly as much on military power as every other country in the world combined, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. It says that we spend more than six times as much as the country with the next highest budget, China.

• The United States maintains troops at more than 560 bases and other sites abroad, many of them a legacy of a world war that ended 65 years ago. Do we fear that if we pull our bases from Germany, Russia might invade?

• The intelligence community is so vast that more people have “top secret” clearance than live in Washington, D.C.

• The U.S. will spend more on the war in Afghanistan this year, adjusting for inflation, than we spent on the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Civil War and the Spanish-American War combined.

This is the one area where elections scarcely matter. President Obama, a Democrat who symbolized new directions, requested about 6 percent more for the military this year than at the peak of the Bush administration.

“Republicans think banging the war drums wins them votes, and Democrats think if they don’t chime in, they’ll lose votes,” said Andrew Bacevich, an ex-military officer who now is a historian at Boston University. He is author of a thoughtful recent book, “Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War.”

The costs of excessive reliance on military force are not just financial, of course, as Professor Bacevich knows well. His son, Andrew Jr., an Army first lieutenant, was killed in Iraq in 2007.

Let me be clear: I’m a believer in a robust military, which is essential for backing up diplomacy. But the implication is that we need a balanced tool chest of diplomatic and military tools alike. Instead, we have a billionaire military and a pauper diplomacy. The U.S. military now has more people in its marching bands than the State Department has in its foreign service — and that’s preposterous.

What’s more, if you’re carrying an armload of hammers, every problem looks like a nail. The truth is that military power often isn’t very effective at solving modern problems, like a nuclear North Korea or an Iran that is on the nuclear path. Indeed, in an age of nationalism, our military force is often counterproductive.

After the first gulf war, the United States retained bases in Saudi Arabia on the assumption that they would enhance American security. Instead, they appear to have provoked fundamentalists like Osama bin Laden into attacking the U.S. In other words, hugely expensive bases undermined American security (and we later closed them anyway). Wouldn’t our money have been better spent helping American kids get a college education?

Paradoxically, it’s often people with experience in the military who lead the way in warning against overinvestment in arms. It was President Dwight Eisenhower who gave the strongest warning: “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.” And in the Obama administration, it is Defense Secretary Robert Gates who has argued that military spending on things large and small can and should expect closer, harsher scrutiny; it is Secretary Gates who has argued most eloquently for more investment in diplomacy and development aid.

American troops in Afghanistan are among the strongest advocates of investing more in schools there because they see firsthand that education fights extremism far more effectively than bombs. And here’s the trade-off: For the cost of one American soldier in Afghanistan for one year, you could build about 20 schools.

There are a few signs of hope in the air. The Simpson-Bowles deficit commission proposes cutting money for armaments, along with other spending. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton unveiled a signature project, the quadrennial diplomacy and development review, which calls for more emphasis on aid and diplomacy in foreign policy.

“Leading through civilian power saves lives and money,” Mrs. Clinton noted, and she’s exactly right. The review is a great document, but we’ll see if it can be implemented — especially because House Republicans are proposing cuts in the State Department budget.

They should remind themselves that in the 21st century, our government can protect its citizens in many ways: financing research against disease, providing early childhood programs that reduce crime later, boosting support for community colleges, investing in diplomacy that prevents costly wars.

As we cut budgets, let’s remember that these steps would, on balance, do far more for the security of Americans than a military base in Germany.

Last but not least, here’s Mr. Rich:

Of the many notable Americans we lost in 2010, three leap out as paragons of a certain optimistic American spirit that we also seemed to lose this year. Two you know: Theodore Sorensen, the speechwriter present at the creation of J.F.K.’s clarion call to “ask what you can do for your country,” and Richard Holbrooke, the diplomat who brought peace to the killing fields of Bosnia in the 1990s. Holbrooke, who was my friend, came of age in the Kennedy years and exemplified its can-do idealism. He gave his life to the proposition that there was nothing an American couldn’t accomplish if he marshaled his energy and talents. His premature death — while heroically bearing the crushing burdens of Afghanistan and Pakistan — is tragic in more ways than many Americans yet realize.

But a third representative American optimist who died this year, at age 91, is a Connecticut man who was not a player in great events and whom I’d never heard of until I read his Times obituary: Robbins Barstow, an amateur filmmaker who for decades recorded his family’s doings in home movies of such novelty and quality that one of them, the 30-minute “Disneyland Dream,” was admitted to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress two years ago. That rare honor elevates Barstow’s filmmaking to a pantheon otherwise restricted mostly to Hollywood classics, from “Citizen Kane” to “Star Wars.”

“Disneyland Dream” was made in the summer of 1956, shortly before the dawn of the Kennedy era. You can watch it on line at archive.org or on YouTube. Its narrative is simple. The young Barstow family of Wethersfield, Conn. — Robbins; his wife, Meg; and their three children aged 4 to 11 — enter a nationwide contest to win a free trip to Disneyland, then just a year old. The contest was sponsored by 3M, which asked contestants to submit imaginative encomiums to the wonders of its signature product. Danny, the 4-year-old, comes up with the winning testimonial, emblazoned on poster board: “I like ‘Scotch’ brand cellophane tape because when some things tear then I can just use it.”

Soon enough, the entire neighborhood is cheering the Barstows as they embark on their first visit to the golden land of Anaheim, Calif. As narrated by Robbins Barstow (he added his voiceover soundtrack to the silent Kodachrome film in 1995), every aspect of this pilgrimage is a joy, from the “giant TWA Super Constellation” propeller plane (seating 64) that crosses the country in a single day (with a refueling stop in St. Louis) to the home-made Davy Crockett jackets the family wears en route.

To watch “Disneyland Dream” now as a boomer inevitably sets off pangs of longing for a vanished childhood fantasyland: not just Walt Disney’s then-novel theme park but all the sunny idylls of 1950s pop culture. As it happens, Disney’s Davy Crockett, the actor Fess Parker, also died this year. So did Barbara Billingsley, matriarch of the sitcom “Leave It to Beaver,” whose fictional family, the Cleavers, first appeared in 1957 and could have lived next door to the Barstows. But the real power of this film is more subtle and pertinent than nostalgia.

When the Barstows finally arrive at the gates of Disneyland itself and enter its replica of Main Street, U.S.A. — “reconstructed as it might have been half a century earlier,” as the narration says — we realize that the America of “Disneyland Dream” is as many years distant from us as that picture-postcard Main Street was from this Connecticut family. The almost laughably low-tech primitivism of the original Disneyland, the futuristic Tomorrowland included, looks as antique in 2010 as Main Street’s horse-drawn buggies and penny-candy emporium looked to the Barstows.

Many of America’s more sweeping changes since 1956 are for the better. You can’t spot a nonwhite face among the family’s neighbors back home or at Disneyland. Indeed, according to Neal Gabler’s epic biography of Disney, civil rights activists were still pressuring the park to hire black employees as late as 1963, the same year that Martin Luther King Jr.’s march on Washington and Betty Friedan’s “Feminine Mystique” started upending the Wonder Bread homogeneity that suffuses the America of “Disneyland Dream.”

But, for all those inequities, economic equality seemed within reach in 1956, at least for the vast middle class. (Michael Harrington’s exposé of American poverty, “The Other America,” would not rock this complacency until 1962.) The sense that the American promise of social and economic mobility was attainable to anyone who sought it permeates “Disneyland Dream” from start to finish.

The Barstows exemplified that postwar middle class. Robbins Barstow’s day job was as a director of professional development for a state teachers’ union. His family wanted for nothing, but finances were tight. Once in California they cheerfully stretch their limited expense money ($300 for the week) by favoring picnics over restaurants. As they dive into the pool at the old Huntington Sheraton, the grand Pasadena hotel where they’re bivouacked, they marvel at its reminders of “bygone days of more leisurely and gentle upper-class style and elegance.”

The key word in that sentence is “bygone.” The Barstows accept as a birthright an egalitarian American capitalism where everyone has a crack at “upper class” luxury if they strive for it (or are clever enough to win it). It’s an America where great corporations like 3M can be counted upon to make innovative products, sustain an American work force, and reward their customers with a Cracker Jack prize now and then. The Barstows are delighted to discover that the restrooms in Fantasyland are marked “Prince” and “Princess.” In America, anyone can be royalty, even in the john.

“Disneyland Dream” is an irony-free zone. “For our particular family at that particular time, we agreed with Walt Disney that this was the happiest place on earth,” Barstow concludes at the film’s end, from his vantage point of 1995. He sees himself as part of “one of the most fortunate families in the world to have this marvelous dream actually come true” and is “forever grateful to Scotch brand cellophane tape for making all this possible for us.”

Only 15 months after the Barstows returned home, America’s faith in its own unbounded future, so palpable in “Disneyland Dream,” would be shaken by the Soviet launch of Sputnik, the first Earth-orbiting satellite. Could it be that America, for all its might, entrepreneurship and brainpower, was falling behind its cold war antagonist in the race to the future? It was in that shadow that John F. Kennedy promised a New Frontier that would reclaim America’s heroic destiny, and do so with shared sacrifice and a renewed commitment to the lower-case democratic values central to both the American and Disneyland dreams of families like the Barstows.

This month our own neo-Kennedy president — handed the torch by J.F.K.’s last brother and soon to face the first Congress without a Kennedy since 1947 — identified a new “Sputnik moment” for America. This time the jolt was provided by the mediocre performance of American high school students, who underperformed not just the Chinese but dozens of other countries in standardized tests of science, math and reading. In his speech on the subject, President Obama called for more spending on research and infrastructure, more educational reform and more clean energy technology. (All while reducing the deficit, mind you.) Worthy goals, but if you watch “Disneyland Dream,” you realize something more fundamental is missing from America now: the bedrock faith in the American way that J.F.K. could tap into during his era’s Sputnik moment.

How many middle-class Americans now believe that the sky is the limit if they work hard enough? How many trust capitalism to give them a fair shake? Middle-class income started to flatten in the 1970s and has stagnated ever since. While 3M has continued to prosper, many other companies that actually make things (and at times innovative things) have been devalued, looted or destroyed by a financial industry whose biggest innovation in 20 years, in the verdict of the former Fed chairman Paul Volcker, has been the cash machine.

It’s a measure of how rapidly our economic order has shifted that nearly a quarter of the 400 wealthiest people in America on this year’s Forbes list make their fortunes from financial services, more than three times as many as in the first Forbes 400 in 1982. Many of America’s best young minds now invent derivatives, not Disneylands, because that’s where the action has been, and still is, two years after the crash. In 2010, our system incentivizes high-stakes gambling — “this business of securitizing things that didn’t even exist in the first place,” as Calvin Trillin memorably wrote last year — rather than the rebooting and rebuilding of America.

In last week’s exultant preholiday press conference, Obama called for a “thriving, booming middle class, where everybody’s got a shot at the American dream.” But it will take much more than rhetorical Scotch tape to bring that back. The Barstows of 1956 could not have fathomed the outrageous gap between this country’s upper class and the rest of us. America can’t move forward until we once again believe, as they did, that everyone can enter Frontierland if they try hard enough, and that no one will be denied a dream because a private party has rented out Tomorrowland.

Dowd, Friedman, Kristof and Rich

December 19, 2010

MoDo ponders a question:  “A Gay Commander in Chief: Ready or Not?”  She says it’s the last political taboo (well, other than that woman POTUS thing…) and that 2008 election broke one presidential barrier, but are we on the cusp of breaking more?  The Moustache of Wisdom, in “The U.S.S. Prius,” says there’s a green revolution going on in the Navy and Marines.  Mr. Kristof, in “The Gifts of Hope,” offers A Humanitarian Gift Guide: Nothing says “Happy Holidays” like a scarf from a brothel survivor.  Mr. Rich, in “The Bipartisan Racket,” says the No Labels political organization is well intentioned, but its leaders seem utterly clueless about why Americans of all labels are angry.  Here’s MoDo:

Jimmy Carter is putting the out in outspokenness.

In an interview with bigthink.com, the former president was asked, “Is the country ready for a gay president?”

Even as John McCain and other ossified Republicans were staging last-minute maneuvers to torpedo the “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal, the 86-year-old Carter was envisioning a grander civil rights victory.

“I would say that the answer is yes,” he said. “I don’t know about the next election, but I think in the near future.”

The news that Leonardo DiCaprio and Armie Hammer will smooch in an upcoming movie about J. Edgar Hoover and his aide Clyde Tolson — buried near each other in the Congressional Cemetery on Capitol Hill — is a reminder of an “Advise and Consent” Washington where being a closeted gay official made you vulnerable to blackmail.

Others feel we’re not ready for a gay president, citing the fear and loathing unleashed by the election of the first black president. “Can you imagine how much a gay president would have to overcompensate to please the macho ninnies who control our national debate?” Bill Maher told me. “Women like Hillary have to do it, Obama had to do it because he’s black and liberal, but a gay president? He’d have to nuke something the first week.”

I called Barney Frank, assuming the gay pioneer would be optimistic. He wasn’t. “It’s one thing to have a gay person in the abstract,” he said. “It’s another to see that person as part of a living, breathing couple. How would a gay presidential candidate have a celebratory kiss with his partner after winning the New Hampshire primary? The sight of two women kissing has not been as distressful to people as the sight of two men kissing.”

Because of the Defense of Marriage Act, he added, “it’s not clear that a gay president could use federal funds to buy his husband dinner. Would his partner have to pay rent in the White House? There would be no Secret Service protection for the paramour.”

Frank noted that we’ve “clearly had one gay president already, James Buchanan. If I had to pick one, it wouldn’t be him.” (The Atlantic blogger Andrew Sullivan aims higher, citing Abe Lincoln, who sometimes bundled with his military bodyguard in bed when his wife was away.)

Frank said that although most Republicans now acknowledge that sexual orientation is not a choice, they still can’t handle their pols’ coming out. “There are Republicans here who are gay,” he said of Congress, “but as long as they don’t acknowledge it, it’s O.K. Republicans only tolerate you being gay as long as you don’t seem proud of it. You’ve got to be apologetic.”

Sam Adams, the mayor of Portland, Ore., hopes that the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” will help persuade “the collective conscience of the United States that gay people are just the same as anybody else. We shouldn’t have to die in the closet. The irony is, as mayor, I marry people, but I can’t marry Peter, my longtime partner.”

There are no openly gay senators, governors, cabinet members or Supreme Court justices. There are four openly gay Democratic House members, once David Cicilline of Rhode Island gets sworn in.

Representative Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin recalled that during a race for State Assembly, a voter she thought was “trouble” swaggered up to her. But she need not have braced herself. “If you can be honest about that,” he told her, “you’ll be honest about everything.”

She said she took her former girlfriend, Lauren, to White House parties to meet three presidents, interactions that she thinks “really helps change minds and advance the cause.”

Representative Jared Polis of Colorado said he took his boyfriend, Marlon Reis, to a White House Christmas party this year. He said Marlon is “very popular — some of his best friends are Republican spouses.”

Fred Sainz of the Human Rights Campaign fretted to his husband that a gay president would be anticlimactic.

“People expect this bizarro and outlandish behavior,” he told me. “We’re always the funny neighbor wearing colorful, avant-garde clothing. We would let down people with our boringness and banality when they learn that we go to grocery stores Saturday afternoon, take our kids to school plays and go see movies.”

After studying polling data for a decade, Sainz thinks a lesbian would have a better shot at the presidency than a gay man. “People are more comfortable with women than they are with men because of stereotypes with gay men about hypersexuality,” he said.

André Leon Talley, the Vogue visionary, pictures a lesbian president who looks like Julie Andrews and dresses to meet heads of state in “ankle-length skirts, grazing the Manolo Blahnik kitten heels.” She would save her “butch trouser suit for weekends at Camp David and vacation hikes in Yellowstone. No plaid lumberjack shirts at any time.”

Trust MoDo to trivialize anything.  Here’s The Moustache of Wisdom:

As I was saying, the thing I love most about America is that there’s always somebody here who doesn’t get the word — and they go out and do the right thing or invent the new thing, no matter what’s going on politically or economically. And what could save America’s energy future — at a time when a fraudulent, anti-science campaign funded largely by Big Oil and Big Coal has blocked Congress from passing any clean energy/climate bill — is the fact that the Navy and Marine Corps just didn’t get the word.

God bless them: “The Few. The Proud. The Green.” Semper Fi.

Spearheaded by Ray Mabus, President Obama’s secretary of the Navy and the former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, the Navy and Marines are building a strategy for “out-greening” Al Qaeda, “out-greening” the Taliban and “out-greening” the world’s petro-dictators. Their efforts are based in part on a recent study from 2007 data that found that the U.S. military loses one person, killed or wounded, for every 24 fuel convoys it runs in Afghanistan. Today, there are hundreds and hundreds of these convoys needed to truck fuel — to run air-conditioners and power diesel generators — to remote bases all over Afghanistan.

Mabus’s argument is that if the U.S. Navy and Marines could replace those generators with renewable power and more energy efficient buildings, and run its ships on nuclear energy, biofuels and hybrid engines, and fly its jets with bio-fuels, then it could out-green the Taliban — the best way to avoid a roadside bomb is to not have vehicles on the roads — and out-green all the petro-dictators now telling the world what to do.

Unlike the Congress, which can be bought off by Big Oil and Big Coal, it is not so easy to tell the Marines that they can’t buy the solar power that could save lives. I don’t know what the final outcome in Iraq or Afghanistan will be, but if we come out of these two wars with a Pentagon-led green revolution, I know they won’t be a total loss. Wars that were driven partly by our oil addiction end up forcing us to break our oil addiction? Wouldn’t that be interesting?

Jackalyne Pfannenstiel, the assistant secretary of the Navy for energy, installations and environment, used to lead the California Energy Commission. She listed for me what’s going on:

On April 22, Earth Day, the Navy flew a F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter jet powered by a 50-50 blend of conventional jet fuel and camelina aviation biofuel made from pressed mustard seeds. It flew at Mach 1.2 and has since been tested on biofuels at Mach 1.7 — without a hiccup. I loved the quote in Biofuels Digest from Scott Johnson, general manager of Sustainable Oils, which produced the camelina: “It was awesome to watch camelina biofuel break the sound barrier.”

The Navy will use only “third generation” biofuels. That means no ethanol made from corn because it doesn’t have enough energy density. The Navy is only testing fuels like camelina and algae that do not compete with food, that have a total end-to-end carbon footprint cleaner than fossil fuels and that can be grown in ways that will ultimately be cheaper than fossil fuels.

In October, the Navy launched the U.S.S. Makin Island amphibious assault ship, which is propelled by a hybrid gas turbine/electric motor. On its maiden voyage from Mississippi to San Diego, said Mabus, it saved $2 million in fuel.

In addition, the Navy has tested its RCB-X combat boat on a 50-50 blend of algae and diesel, and it has tested its SH-60 helicopter on a similar biofuel blend. Meanwhile, the Marines now have a “green” forward operating base set up in Helmand Province in Afghanistan that is testing in the field everything from LED lights in tents to solar canopies to power refrigerators and equipment — to see just how efficiently one remote base can get by without fossil fuel.

When you factor in all the costs of transporting fuel by truck or air to a forward base in Afghanistan — that is, guarding it and delivering it over mountains — a single gallon of gasoline “could cost up to $400” once it finally arrives, Mabus said.

The Navy plans in 2012 to put out to sea a “Great Green Fleet,” a 13-ship carrier battle group powered either by nuclear energy or 50-50 blends of biofuels and with aircraft flying on 50-50 blends of biofuels.

Mabus has also set a goal for the Navy to use alternative energy sources to provide 50 percent of the energy for all its war-fighting ships, planes, vehicles and shore installations by 2020. If the Navy really uses its buying power when buying power, and setting building efficiency standards, it alone could expand the green energy market in a decisive way.

And, if Congress will simply refrain from forcing the Navy to use corn ethanol or liquid coal — neither of which are clean or efficient, but are located in many Congressional districts — we might really get a green revolution in the military. That could save lives, money and the planet, and might even help us win — or avoid — the next war. Go Navy!

Now here’s Mr. Kristof, who perhaps will come up with his list earlier next year, before we’ve finished our Christmas shopping:

So what would your aunt prefer as a holiday gift — another Mariah Carey CD, or the knowledge that she’s sending a little girl in Haiti to school for a year?

Unless you’re cursed with the oddest aunt ever, the answer is probably the latter. In that spirit, this column will serve as a sort of Humanitarian Gift Guide: I’ll lay out some of the loftiest gifts of all, those that touch human lives and connect us. As I did last year, I’m going to skip over the big organizations that most people have heard of. So by all means, buy your kids a $30 beehive (or an $850 camel) for a needy family through Heifer International, or write a check to the International Rescue Committee for its terrific work in Congo — but my focus today is groups that never make the spotlight:

¶Arzu (ArzuStudioHope.org) employs women in Afghanistan to make carpets for export. The women get decent wages, but their families must commit to sending children to school and to allowing women to attend literacy and health classes and receive medical help in childbirth. Rugs start at $250 and bracelets at $10, or a $20 donation pays for a water filter for a worker’s family.

¶First Book (firstbook.org) addresses a basic problem facing poor kids in America: They don’t have books. One study found that in low-income neighborhoods, there is only one age-appropriate book for every 300 children. So First Book supports antipoverty organizations with children’s books — and above all, gets kids reading. A $100 gift will supply 50 books for a mentor to tutor a child in reading for a year. And $20 will get 10 books in the hands of kids to help discover the joys of reading.

¶Fonkoze (fonkoze.org) is a terrific poverty-fighting organization if Haiti is on your mind, nearly a year after the earthquake. A $20 gift will send a rural Haitian child to elementary school for a year, while $50 will buy a family a pregnant goat. Or $100 supports a family for 13 weeks while it starts a business.

¶Another terrific Haiti-focused organization is Partners in Health, (pih.org), founded by Dr. Paul Farmer, the Harvard Medical School professor. A $100 donation pays for enough therapeutic food (a bit like peanut butter) to treat a severely malnourished child for one month. Or $50 provides seeds, agricultural implements and training for a family to grow more food for itself.

¶Panzi Hospital (panzifoundation.org) treats victims of sexual violence in eastern Congo, rape capital of the world. It’s run by Dr. Denis Mukwege, who should be a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize. A $10 donation pays for transport to the hospital for a rape survivor; $100 pays for counseling and literacy and skill training for a survivor for a month.

¶Camfed (camfed.org), short for the Campaign for Female Education, sends girls to school in Africa and provides a broad support system for them. A $300 donation pays for a girl to attend middle school for a year in rural Zambia, and $25 sends a girl to elementary school.

¶The Nurse-Family Partnership program (nursefamilypartnership.org) is a stellar organization in the United States that works with first-time mothers to try to break the cycle of poverty. It sends nurses to at-risk women who are pregnant for the first time, continuing the visits until the child turns 2. The result seems to be less alcohol and drug abuse during pregnancy, and better child-rearing afterward, so that the children are less likely to tangle with the law even years later. A $150 gift provides periodic coaching and support for a young nurse by a senior nurse for a month.

¶Edna Hospital (ednahospital.org) is a dazzling maternity hospital in Somaliland, an area with one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world. Edna Adan Ismail, a Somali nurse- midwife who rose in the ranks of the World Health Organization and also served as Somaliland’s foreign minister, founded the hospital with her life’s savings and supports it with her United Nations pension. A $50 gift pays for a woman to get four prenatal visits, a hospital delivery, and one postnatal visit. Or $150 pays for a lifesaving C-section for a woman in obstructed labor.

¶The Somaly Mam Foundation fights sex slavery in Cambodia and around the world (somaly.org). It is run by Somaly Mam, who was sold into Cambodian brothels as a young girl before escaping years later. For $50, you can buy a lovely silk scarf made by a trafficking survivor; $25 buys a necklace made by a survivor.

One of the paradoxes of living in a wealthy country is that we accumulate tremendous purchasing power, yet it’s harder and harder for us to give friends and family presents that are meaningful. In this holiday season, sometimes a scarf from a prostituted Cambodian girl, or a scholarship for a Zambian child, is the most heartwarming gift of all.

Now, last but not least, here’s Mr. Rich:

Jeez, can’t we all just get along? Can’t we be civilized? Can’t we reach across the aisle, find common ground and get things done? Can’t we have a new Morning in America as clubby and chipper as MSNBC’s daily gabfest, “Morning Joe”?

This is actually the manifesto of the new political organization called No Labels. It’s no surprise that its official debut last week prompted derisive laughter from all labels across the political spectrum, not to mention Gawker, which deemed it “the most boring political movement of all time.” But attention must be paid. In its patronizing desire to instruct us on what is wrong with our politics, No Labels ends up being a damning indictment of just how alarmingly out of touch the mainstream political-media elite remains with the grievances that have driven Americans to cynicism and despair in the 21st century’s Gilded Age.

Although No Labels sounds like a progressive high school’s Model U.N., its heavy hitters are serious adults — or at least white male adults. Among the 16 billed speakers at last week’s official launch in New York, there were three women and no blacks, notwithstanding an excruciating No Labels “anthem” contributed by the Senegalese-American rapper Akon. (Do find on YouTube.) The marquee names on hand included Michael Bloomberg; Senate Democrats (Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, the incoming Joe Manchin of West Virginia); moderate Republicans drummed out of office by the Tea Party (Charlie Crist, Mike Castle); and no fewer than four MSNBC talking heads. Despite Bloomberg’s denials, some persist in speculating that No Labels is a stalking horse for a quixotic 2012 presidential run. At the very least the organization is a promotional hobby horse for MSNBC.

“Morning Joe” plugged No Labels with an alacrity to match Fox News’s Tea Party boosterism (if not Fox’s decibel level). The No Labels slogan — “Not Left. Not Right. Forward” — even echoes MSNBC’s advertising tagline, “Lean Forward.” Presumably No Labels ditched “lean” because it’s too muscular a verb for a group whose stated goals include better schools, affordable health care and more jobs — as long as they can be achieved “in a fiscally prudent way.” To proselytize for such unimpeachable verities, no leaning is required — you can do it frozen in place, and just possibly in your sleep.

The notion that civility and nominal bipartisanship would accomplish any of the heavy lifting required to rebuild America is childish magical thinking, and, worse, a mindless distraction from the real work before the nation. Sure, it would be swell if rhetorical peace broke out in Washington — or on cable news networks — but given that American politics have been rancorous since Boston’s original Tea Party, wishing will not make it so. Bipartisanship is equally extinct — as made all too evident this month by the pathetic fate of the much-hyped Simpson-Bowles deficit commission. Less than a week after the panel released its recommendations, the Democratic president and the Republican Congressional leadership both signed off on a tax-cut package that made a mockery of all its proposals by adding another $858 billion to the deficit. Even the Iraq Study Group — Washington’s last stab at delegating tough choices to a blue-ribbon bipartisan commission — enjoyed a slightly longer shelf life before its recommendations were unceremoniously dumped into the garbage.

The No Labels faith in kumbaya as an antidote to what ails a polarized Washington isn’t derived from any recent historical precedent but from the undying Beltway anecdotes about how Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill used to bury the hatchet over booze in times of yore. Bipartisanship is also a perennial holy grail in Beltway punditry — as typified by David Broder, who hailed the Simpson-Bowles commission as “historic” in The Washington Post just hours before its findings were voted down by commission members on both the left (Representative Jan Schakowsky of Illinois) and right (Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin).

Beltway conventional wisdom is equally responsible for another myth promoted by No Labels: that the Move On left and the Tea Party right are equal contributors to America’s “hyperpartisanship.” In the real world, no one could seriously believe that activists on the left have the sway over Democratic leaders, starting with President Obama, that the Tea Party has over the G.O.P. Nor, with all due respect to MSNBC, does the left have a media megaphone to match the Tea Party’s alliance with the Murdoch empire, as led by Fox News, and the megastars of talk radio.

Besides, polls consistently show that hyperpartisanship is more prevalent among Republican voters than Democrats. When Democrats were asked in a Wall Street Journal/NBC News survey released last week if they wanted their leaders in Washington to stick with their positions rather than compromise with Republicans, only 29 percent said yes. When Republicans were asked the equivalent question, the no-compromise number jumped to 47 percent.

Yet what’s most disturbing about No Labels is that its centrist, no doubt well-intentioned leaders seem utterly clueless about why Americans of all labels are angry: the realization that both parties are bought off by special interests who game the system and stack it against the rest of us. Indeed, No Labels itself is another manifestation of this syndrome. Its two prime movers are a political consultant, Mark McKinnon, a veteran of the Bush and McCain campaigns known for slick salesmanship; and a fund-raiser, Nancy Jacobson, who, along with her husband, the pollster and corporate flack Mark Penn, helped brand the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign as a depository for special-interest contributions.

No less depressing is the No Labels veneration of Evan Bayh, the Democratic senator from Indiana who decided to retire this year rather than fight for another term. For months now, Bayh has been positioning himself as a sacrificial lamb to broken Washington; when he made the rounds plugging No Labels last week, he was greeted as a martyr on MSNBC. What goes unmentioned in the Bayh morality tale is that in quitting the Senate without a fight, he became part of the problem rather than the solution: his exit facilitated the election of a high-powered corporate lobbyist, Dan Coats, as his Republican successor. Then again, Bayh’s father — another former liberal Democratic senator — is also a lobbyist. (Evan Bayh has so far been mum about his own post-Senate career plans.)

This is exactly the kind of revolving-door synergy between corporate power and governance that turns off Americans left, right and, yes, center. Oblivious to this taint, No Labels named a few fat-cat donors who have ponied up $1million-plus. But like those shadowy outside groups invented by Karl Rove and his cronies for the 2010 campaign, No Labels has registered as a 501 (c) (4) and is not legally bound to release information about its contributors.

WHAT America needs is not another political organization with a toothless agenda and less-than-transparent finances. The country will not rest easy until there are brave leaders in both parties willing to reform the system that let perpetrators of the Great Recession escape while the rest of us got stuck with the wreckage. As Jesse Eisinger of the investigative journalistic organization ProPublica summed up in The Times this month: “Nobody from Lehman, Merrill Lynch or Citigroup has been charged criminally with anything. No top executives at Bear Stearns have been indicted. All former American International Group executives are running free.” For No Labels to battle this status quo would require actual political courage — true bipartisan courage, in fact.

To say there’s been no accountability for the crash is an understatement. In yet another spectacular display of failed bipartisanship last week, the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, charged by Congress with unearthing the roots of the financial meltdown, split apart in sectarian warfare. The panel’s Republican members issued their own rump report eliminating all mention of derivatives, executive compensation, failed regulatory agencies and even the words “Wall Street” so the whole debacle could be pinned solely on government (Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac) and deadbeat Americans who took on predatory mortgages.

Our political leaders seem more inclined to hasten the next bust — and perhaps cash in on it — than prevent it. Massachusetts Republicans can’t be blamed if they react with anger, not civility, to The Boston Globe’s new revelations that Scott Brown raked in off-the-charts donations from the finance industry while toiling to weaken the financial regulatory bill. Democrats are equally entitled to be outraged that Obama’s former budget director, Peter Orszag, has followed the egregious example of his mentor, Robert Rubin, by moving from the White House to a job at Citigroup — and only four months after leaving government service.

As The Times reported, Citi is now marketing all-new lines of loosey-goosey credit cards to debt-prone Americans much as it stoked the proliferation of no-money-down mortgages during Rubin’s tenure in the housing bubble. It can do so with impunity, since the incoming chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, Spencer Bachus, has already guaranteed institutions like Citi a pass. As Bachus’s instantly notorious pronouncement had it, “My view is that Washington and the regulators are there to serve the banks.”

In truth, this congressman’s view has been the prevailing view in Washington under both parties since the Reagan administration. If No Labels is the best our centrist political establishment can come up with to address the ills eating away at America, its culture is as bankrupt as Citigroup would be if taxpayers had been allowed to let it fail.

Cripes, what a simply ghastly thought: A Morning in America like “Morning Joe?”  Just shoot me now.  Does that mean that the President would get to yell and scream and carry on and belittle anyone who disagreed with him?  Peachy!  Just shoot me now and get it over with…

Unless you’re cursed with the oddest aunt ever, the answer is probably the latter. In that spirit, this column will serve as a sort of Humanitarian Gift Guide: I’ll lay out some of the loftiest gifts of all, those that touch human lives and connect us. As I did last year, I’m going to skip over the big organizations that most people have heard of. So by all means, buy your kids a $30 beehive (or an $850 camel) for a needy family through Heifer International, or write a check to the International Rescue Committee for its terrific work in Congo — but my focus today is groups that never make the spotlight:

¶Arzu (ArzuStudioHope.org) employs women in Afghanistan to make carpets for export. The women get decent wages, but their families must commit to sending children to school and to allowing women to attend literacy and health classes and receive medical help in childbirth. Rugs start at $250 and bracelets at $10, or a $20 donation pays for a water filter for a worker’s family.

¶First Book (firstbook.org) addresses a basic problem facing poor kids in America: They don’t have books. One study found that in low-income neighborhoods, there is only one age-appropriate book for every 300 children. So First Book supports antipoverty organizations with children’s books — and above all, gets kids reading. A $100 gift will supply 50 books for a mentor to tutor a child in reading for a year. And $20 will get 10 books in the hands of kids to help discover the joys of reading.

¶Fonkoze (fonkoze.org) is a terrific poverty-fighting organization if Haiti is on your mind, nearly a year after the earthquake. A $20 gift will send a rural Haitian child to elementary school for a year, while $50 will buy a family a pregnant goat. Or $100 supports a family for 13 weeks while it starts a business.

¶Another terrific Haiti-focused organization is Partners in Health, (pih.org), founded by Dr. Paul Farmer, the Harvard Medical School professor. A $100 donation pays for enough therapeutic food (a bit like peanut butter) to treat a severely malnourished child for one month. Or $50 provides seeds, agricultural implements and training for a family to grow more food for itself.

¶Panzi Hospital (panzifoundation.org) treats victims of sexual violence in eastern Congo, rape capital of the world. It’s run by Dr. Denis Mukwege, who should be a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize. A $10 donation pays for transport to the hospital for a rape survivor; $100 pays for counseling and literacy and skill training for a survivor for a month.

¶Camfed (camfed.org), short for the Campaign for Female Education, sends girls to school in Africa and provides a broad support system for them. A $300 donation pays for a girl to attend middle school for a year in rural Zambia, and $25 sends a girl to elementary school.

¶The Nurse-Family Partnership program (nursefamilypartnership.org) is a stellar organization in the United States that works with first-time mothers to try to break the cycle of poverty. It sends nurses to at-risk women who are pregnant for the first time, continuing the visits until the child turns 2. The result seems to be less alcohol and drug abuse during pregnancy, and better child-rearing afterward, so that the children are less likely to tangle with the law even years later. A $150 gift provides periodic coaching and support for a young nurse by a senior nurse for a month.

¶Edna Hospital (ednahospital.org) is a dazzling maternity hospital in Somaliland, an area with one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world. Edna Adan Ismail, a Somali nurse- midwife who rose in the ranks of the World Health Organization and also served as Somaliland’s foreign minister, founded the hospital with her life’s savings and supports it with her United Nations pension. A $50 gift pays for a woman to get four prenatal visits, a hospital delivery, and one postnatal visit. Or $150 pays for a lifesaving C-section for a woman in obstructed labor.

¶The Somaly Mam Foundation fights sex slavery in Cambodia and around the world (somaly.org). It is run by Somaly Mam, who was sold into Cambodian brothels as a young girl before escaping years later. For $50, you can buy a lovely silk scarf made by a trafficking survivor; $25 buys a necklace made by a survivor.

One of the paradoxes of living in a wealthy country is that we accumulate tremendous purchasing power, yet it’s harder and harder for us to give friends and family presents that are meaningful. In this holiday season, sometimes a scarf from a prostituted Cambodian girl, or a scholarship for a Zambian child, is the most heartwarming gift of all. JEEZ, can’t we all just get along? Can’t we be civilized? Can’t we reach across the aisle, find common ground and get things done? Can’t we have a new Morning in America as clubby and chipper as MSNBC’s daily gabfest, “Morning Joe”?

Friedman, Kristof and Rich

December 12, 2010

Happy Holidays!  We’re spared MoDo this week.  The Moustache of Wisdom offers a “Reality Check” in which he says America must get out of the way so Israelis and Palestinians can see clearly, without any obstructions, what reckless choices their leaders are making.  Mr. Kristof, in “Now Grandma Can ‘Win A Trip’ Too,” is announcing his latest contest to join a reporting trip abroad. This time, a senior citizen will be going along too.  Mr. Rich, in “Gay Bashing at the Smithsonian,” says it still seems an unwritten rule in establishment Washington that homophobia is at most a misdemeanor.  Here’s The Moustache of Wisdom:

The failed attempt by the U.S. to bribe Israel with a $3 billion security assistance package, diplomatic cover and advanced F-35 fighter aircraft — if Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu would simply agree to a 90-day settlements freeze to resume talks with the Palestinians — has been enormously clarifying. It demonstrates just how disconnected from reality both the Israeli and the Palestinian leaderships have become.

Oil is to Saudi Arabia what unconditional American aid and affection are to Israel — and what unconditional Arab and European aid and affection are to the Palestinians: a hallucinogenic drug that enables them each to think they can defy the laws of history, geography and demography. It is long past time that we stop being their crack dealers. At a time of nearly 10 percent unemployment in America, we have the Israelis and the Palestinians sitting over there with their arms folded, waiting for more U.S. assurances or money to persuade them to do what is manifestly in their own interest: negotiate a two-state deal. Shame on them, and shame us. You can’t want peace more than the parties themselves, and that is exactly where America is today. The people running Israel and Palestine have other priorities. It is time we left them alone to pursue them — and to live with the consequences.

They just don’t get it: we’re not their grandfather’s America anymore. We have bigger problems. Israeli and Palestinian negotiators should take a minute and put the following five words into Google: “budget cuts and fire departments.” Here’s what they’ll find: American city after city — Phoenix, Cincinnati, Austin, Washington, Jacksonville, Sacramento, Philadelphia — all having to cut their fire departments. Then put in these four words: “schools and budget cuts.” One of the top stories listed is from The Christian Science Monitor: “As state and local governments slash spending and federal stimulus dries up, school budget cuts for the next academic year could be the worst in a generation.”

I guarantee you, if someone came to these cities and said, “We have $3 billion we’d like to give to your schools and fire departments if you’ll just do what is manifestly in your own interest,” their only answer would be: “Where do we sign?” And so it should have been with Israel.

Israel, when America, a country that has lavished billions on you over the last 50 years and taken up your defense in countless international forums, asks you to halt settlements for three months to get peace talks going, there is only one right answer, and it is not “How much?” It is: “Yes, whatever you want, because you’re our only true friend in the world.”

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, what are you thinking? Ehud Olmert, the former Israeli prime minister, offered you a great two-state deal, including East Jerusalem — and you let it fritter away. Now, instead of chasing after Obama and telling him you’ll show up for negotiations anywhere under any conditions that the president asks, you’re also setting your own terms. Here’s some free advice: When America goes weak, if you think the Chinese will deliver Israel for you, you’re wrong. I know China well. It will sell you out for a boatload of Israeli software, drones and microchips so fast that your head will spin.

I understand the problem: Israeli and Palestinian leaders cannot end the conflict between each other without having a civil war within their respective communities. Netanyahu would have to take on the settlers and Abbas would have to take on Hamas and the Fatah radicals. Both men have silent majorities that would back them if they did, but neither man feels so uncomfortable with his present situation to risk that civil war inside to make peace outside. There are no Abe Lincolns out there.

What this means, argues the Hebrew University philosopher Moshe Halbertal, is that the window for a two-state solution is rapidly closing. Israel will end up permanently occupying the West Bank with its 2.5 million Palestinians. We will have a one-state solution. Israel will have inside its belly 2.5 million Palestinians without the rights of citizenship, along with 1.5 million Israeli Arabs. “Then the only question will be what will be the nature of this one state — it will either be apartheid or Lebanon,” said Halbertal. “We will be confronted by two horrors.”

The most valuable thing that President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton could do now is just get out of the picture — so both leaders and both peoples have an unimpeded view of their horrible future together in one state, if they can’t separate. We must not give them any more excuses, like: “Here comes the secretary of state again. Be patient. Something is happening. We’re working on a deal. We’re close. If only the Americans weren’t so naïve, we were just about to compromise. … Be patient.”

It’s all a fraud. America must get out of the way so Israelis and Palestinians can see clearly, without any obstructions, what reckless choices their leaders are making. Make no mistake, I am for the most active U.S. mediation effort possible to promote peace, but the initiative has to come from them. The Middle East only puts a smile on your face when it starts with them.

Now here’s Mr. Kristof:

Each time I announce my annual “win-a-trip contest,” to take a university student with me on a reporting trip to the developing world, I get indignant letters.

“Why put such a confining restriction as ‘university students’?” asked Laura McNamara. “How about students of life?”

Betty Michelozzi wrote that she got her first passport at age 63 to go to Guatemala on a Habitat for Humanity team and spent the next 15 years leading such groups. And Peggy from Oregon asked tartly what I was going to do for “us old folks, who aren’t dead yet?”

Point well taken. So for this fifth anniversary trip, I’m going to take not only a university student but also someone over 60. Seniors, dig out your anti-malaria mosquito netting now.

But first, a caution: Colleagues are sadly suspicious of these trips. Maybe it goes back to a night a co-worker and I spent in an abandoned hut in Congo.

My friend noticed a huge tarantula in the thatch roof directly above him and objected to turning out the flashlight. I scolded him for his timidity, suggested the tarantula was probably dead, mocked the idea that it would fall on him, noted dismissively that it would be absurd to switch places, and bullied him into silence. We turned off the light — and the next thing I heard was a small “thud” beside me. And then a scream.

I’m not sure where we’ll go on this win-a-trip, but one possibility is overland to Timbuktu, another is across either Sudan or Malawi, and a third is to Pakistan, India and Nepal. We’ll explore education, health and nutrition, and you’ll blog on NYTimes.com and record video diaries.

On the very first win-a-trip in 2006, we were held up at gunpoint in the Central African Republic. But we also were able to shine a powerful spotlight on maternal mortality when we came across the wrenching scene of a woman dying in childbirth in Cameroon.

One point of these trips is that there are solutions. Helping people is hard, and plenty of interventions fail. But we’re getting smarter at figuring out what makes a difference. In Congo, we saw how deworming children once a year — for about 50 cents per child — reduces anemia and sickness, and leaves children more likely to attend school.

(In case our win-a-trip cuisine has shortcomings, I offer each companion a special bonus: a free deworming pill.)

While one aim of the win-a-trip contest is to focus attention on global issues, another is to encourage Americans to travel in the developing world. That’s why I started with young people: arguably, the single biggest failing of American universities is that they are parochial and don’t adequately expose students to the one-third of the world that lives on less than $2 a day.

Each year, some of the luckiest entrants in my contest are those who lose — and are so miffed at me that they organize their own trips. It’s crazy to spend college tuition studying Spanish on campus, for example, when you can learn the language far more cheaply in Peru.

If you’re graduating from college, think about the Peace Corps, Princeton in Africa, or other chances to work or live abroad. I recently met Molly Fay, who spent a year after college in Kenya helping with “camel clinics” — health clinics that travel to remote villages by camel. That experience transformed her life. She resolved to become a doctor and is now at Mount Sinai School of Medicine.

If you’re a high school senior, think about taking a “gap year” — nearly all colleges will defer admission — and exploring the world. It’ll be cheaper than a year of college and may well be more educational.

I took a gap year myself, working for the Future Farmers of America youth organization and then picking peaches on a farm in France. My eldest son is taking a gap year in China right now.

Look up Global Citizen Year, which places gap-year students in Africa and Latin America. Or find a country to teach English in through WorldTeach .org. Or volunteer through omprakash .org.

It used to be that it was mostly young people who wanted to change the world. But increasingly older generations are joining in and doing extraordinary work — the winners of the annual “Purpose Prize” for people over 60 are extraordinarily inspiring. And an “encore career” — a post-retirement job, possibly volunteer — allows seniors to do meaningful work on their own schedule. Encore.org is an excellent resource.

So, whether you’re a student or a senior, apply for my win-a-trip contest, and together we’ll try to spotlight some of the world’s neglected problems. To apply, visit my blog, nytimes.com/ontheground, and thanks in advance to the Center for Global Development for helping screen applications.

But even if you don’t win my trip, I hope that you’ll go out and fashion your own.

Now here’s Mr. Rich:

Each Aug. 4, my wife Alex and I visit a church to light candles for two people we loved who both died tragically on that day two years apart — my mother, killed at 64 in a car crash, and Alex’s closest friend from graduate school, killed by AIDS at half that age. My mother was Jewish but loved the meditative serenity of vast cathedrals. Alex’s friend, John, was a Roman Catholic conflicted by a religion that demonized his sexuality. Our favorite pilgrimage is to an Episcopal church, Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, not as some sectarian compromise but because of its AIDS chapel, a haunting reminder of the plague that ravaged that city’s population, especially its gay men, some time ago.

What helps give us some solace is the chapel’s mesmerizing altarpiece. It was the New York artist Keith Haring’s last completed work in the weeks before his death by AIDS at age 31 in 1990. Titled “The Life of Christ” and radiant in gold leaf, it crowns its anguished panorama of suffering with a pair of angels ascending to heaven — all rendered in Haring’s whimsical, graffiti-inspired iconography. Even as he was succumbing to a ruthless disease that had provoked indifference and cruelty rather than compassion from too many of his fellow citizens, Haring, somehow, could still see angels. You needn’t be a believer to be inspired by the beauty of his vision.

Not every artist struck down by AIDS could hit so generous a note. Such was the case with David Wojnarowicz, a painter, author and filmmaker, who, like Haring, was a fixture of the East Village arts scene in the 1980s. When his mentor and former lover, the photographer Peter Hujar, fell ill with AIDS in 1987, Wojnarowicz created a video titled “A Fire in My Belly” to express both his grief and his fury. As in Haring’s altarpiece, Christ figures in Wojnarowicz’s response to the plague — albeit in a cryptic, 11-second cameo. A crucifix is besieged by ants that evoke frantic souls scurrying in panic as a seemingly impassive God looked on.

Hujar died in 1987, and Wojnarowicz would die at age 37, also of AIDS, in 1992. This is now ancient, half-forgotten history. When a four-minute excerpt from “A Fire in My Belly” was included in an exhibit that opened six weeks ago at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, it received no attention. That’s hardly a surprise, given the entirety of this very large show — a survey of same-sex themes in American portraiture titled “Hide/Seek.” The works of Wojnarowicz, Hujar and other lesser known figures are surrounded by such lofty (and often unlikely) bedfellows (many gay, some not) as Robert Mapplethorpe, John Singer Sargent, Grant Wood, Thomas Eakins, Georgia O’Keeffe, Andy Warhol, Andrew Wyeth and Haring. It’s an exhibit that would have been unimaginable in a mainstream institution in Wojnarowicz’s lifetime.

The story might end there — like Haring’s altarpiece, a bittersweet yet uplifting postscript to a time of plague. But it doesn’t because “Fire in My Belly” was removed from the exhibit by the National Portrait Gallery some 10 days ago with the full approval, if not instigation, of its parent institution, the Smithsonian. (The censored version of “Hide/Seek” is still scheduled to run through Feb. 13.) The incident is chilling because it suggests that even in a time of huge progress in gay civil rights, homophobia remains among the last permissible bigotries in America. “Think anti-gay bullying is just for kids? Ask the Smithsonian,” wrote The Los Angeles Times’s art critic, Christopher Knight, last week. One might add: Think anti-gay bullying is just for small-town America? Look at the nation’s capital.

The Smithsonian’s behavior and the ensuing silence in official Washington are jarring echoes of those days when American political leaders stood by idly as the epidemic raged on. The incident is also a throwback to the culture wars we thought we were getting past now — most eerily the mother of them all, the cancellation of a Mapplethorpe exhibit (after he died of AIDS) at another Washington museum, the Corcoran, in 1989.

Like many of its antecedents, the war over Wojnarowicz is a completely manufactured piece of theater. What triggered the abrupt uproar was an incendiary Nov. 29 post on a conservative Web site. The post was immediately and opportunistically seized upon by William Donohue, of the so-called Catholic League, a right-wing publicity mill with no official or financial connection to the Catholic Church.

Donohue is best known for defending Mel Gibson’s anti-Semitism by declaring that “Hollywood is controlled by Jews who hate Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular.” A perennial critic of all news media except Fox, he has also accused The Times of anti-Catholicism because it investigated the church pedophilia scandal. Donohue maintains the church doesn’t have a “pedophilia crisis” but a “homosexual crisis.” Such is the bully that the Smithsonian surrendered to without a fight.

Donohue’s tactic was to label the 11-second ants-and-crucifix sequence as “anti-Christian” hate speech. “The irony,” wrote the Washington Post art critic, Blake Gopnik, is that the video is merely a tepid variation on the centuries-old tradition of artists using images of Christ, many of them “hideously grisly,” to speak of mankind’s suffering. Those images are staples of all museums — even in Washington, where gory 17th-century sculptures of Christ were featured in a recent show of Spanish sacred art at the National Gallery.

But of course Donohue was just using his “religious” objections as a perfunctory cover for the homophobia actually driving his complaint. The truth popped out of the closet as Donohue expanded his indictment to “pornographic images of gay men.” His Republican Congressional allies got into the act. Eric Cantor called for the entire exhibit to be shut down and threatened to maim the Smithsonian’s taxpayer funding come January. (The exhibit was entirely funded by private donors, but such facts don’t matter in culture wars.) Jack Kingston, of the House Appropriations Committee, rattled off his own list of exaggerated gay outrages in “Hide/Seek,” from “Ellen DeGeneres grabbing her breasts” to “naked brothers kissing.”

It took only hours after Donohue’s initial battle cry for the video to be yanked. “The decision wasn’t caving in,” the museum’s director, Martin E. Sullivan, told reporters. Of course it was. The Smithsonian, in its own official statement, rationalized its censorship by saying that Wojnarowicz’s video “generated a strong response from the public.” That’s nonsense. There wasn’t a strong response from the public — there was no response. As the museum’s own publicist told the press, the National Portrait Gallery hadn’t received a single complaint about “A Fire in the Belly” from the exhibit’s opening day, Oct. 30, until a full month later, when a “public” that hadn’t seen the exhibit was mobilized by Donohue to blast the museum by phone and e-mail.

The Post’s Gopnik has been heroically relentless in calling out the Smithsonian and the National Portrait Gallery for their capitulation. But few in Washington’s power circles have joined him, including the Smithsonian’s Board of Regents — a gilded assembly of bipartisan cowardice that ranges from Senator Thad Cochran, Republican of Mississippi, to Senator Patrick Leahy, Democrat of Vermont. This timidity has been particularly striking given that the city’s potentates gathered to bestow the Kennedy Center Honors last weekend on the choreographer Bill T. Jones, whose legendary artistic and personal partnership with Arnie Zane came to a tragic end when Zane was killed by AIDS at age 39 in 1988.

It still seems an unwritten rule in establishment Washington that homophobia is at most a misdemeanor. By this code, the Smithsonian’s surrender is no big deal; let the art world do its little protests. This attitude explains why the ever more absurd excuses concocted by John McCain for almost single-handedly thwarting the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” are rarely called out for what they are — “bigotry disguised as prudence,” in the apt phrase of Slate’s military affairs columnist, Fred Kaplan. Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council has been granted serious and sometimes unchallenged credence as a moral arbiter not just by Rupert Murdoch’s outlets but by CNN, MSNBC and The Post’s “On Faith” Web site even as he cites junk science to declare that “homosexuality poses a risk to children” and that being gay leads to being a child molester.

It’s partly to counteract the hate speech of persistent bullies like Donohue and Perkins that the Seattle-based author and activist Dan Savage created his “It Gets Better” campaign in which gay adults (and some non-gay leaders, including President Obama) make videos urging at-risk teens to realize that they are not alone. But even this humanitarian effort is controversial and suspect in some Beltway quarters: G.O.P. politicians and conservative pundits have yet to participate even though most of the recent and well-publicized suicides by gay teens have occurred in Republican Congressional districts, including those of party leaders like Michele Bachmann, Mike Pence and Kevin McCarthy.

Has it gotten better since AIDS decimated a generation of gay men? In San Francisco, certainly. But when America’s signature cultural institution can be so easily bullied by bigots, it’s another indicator that the angels Keith Haring saw on his death bed have not landed in Washington just yet.