58 posts categorized "Reflections"

Living with Cancer

Saul Friedman

Let me tell you about my friend, Saul Friedman. Born in 1929, he was a life-long political journalist, reporting for some of the major news outlets in the U.S. - the Houston Chronicle, Knight-Ridder, Newsday and more.

In 1968, he shared a Pulitzer Prize for team coverage of the 1967 Detroit riot, for the Detroit Free Press.

I was privileged and proud when, in November 2009, Saul chose to relocate his bi-weekly Reflections column from Newsday to Time Goes By and added a second weekly column just for us TGB older folks, Gray Matters.

His final column, titled “Gray Matters: Small Miracles”, was published on 18 December 2010, chronicling his years living with cancer.

Saul died of a type of stomach cancer on 24 December 2010. I think you might like that last column – this link will take you to it.

Here we are now these almost 10 years later and it is I who lives with cancer. As Saul well knew, even when chemo or other therapies are going well and even when you feel fine between treatment sessions, the word, the idea, the reality of cancer is always hanging around making a low buzz at the edges of one's consciousness.

Since early January, I have been taking bi-weekly chemo treatments that last all of one day at the chemo clinic and continue with a personal body pump strapped to me for two more days.

So far, these have been remarkably successful, having reduced the size of some of the cancer nodules and maintained that through all the treatments so far. They also make me extra tired so that I nap a lot for a few days, kill my appetite so I lose weight that I can't afford to do and give me a few other, minor side effects that fade within a few days.

The result is that I have about 10 days between the bi-weekly chemo treatments that are almost normal. And don't think I don't appreciate it.

When I met with my oncologist a couple of weeks ago, he suggested that I might want a bit of a rest from the chemo and that I could skip one treatment giving me four weeks between treatments instead of only two.

At first, I rejected the suggestion out of hand. The chemo has been working so well, I thought, why take a chance of disrupting its efficacy. But then, as chemo brain was lifting and other side effects from last week's infusion were fading, I kept thinking about what a nice, little, two-week respite it would be.

And so I have until the end of this month to be chemo-free for which I am grateful.

It is already a good-sized miracle that I am still here. About 90 percent of people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer die with a year.

When I recently realized that it has been almost two years since my diagnosis, I went back to re-read some of Saul's columns about life, death and cancer.

Here is a snippet from one titled, “Reflections: My Companion, Cancer” about how hardly any progress had been made toward curing cancer:

”The moon landing, accomplished in eight years, the Manhattan Project, successful in less than ten years, the eradication of malaria in the U.S., cures for tuberculosis and polio, were American accomplishments in the 20th century. I see no such effort focused on the most vicious killer, cancer.

“You might say I have a vested interest in this. That would be wrong. Unless someone comes up with a magic bullet tomorrow, I will have to live with my constant companion and take my chemo and hope. But too many people, and some of whom you know, are suffering and dying around us.

“I remember what it was like before and after Salk. I’d like my kids to experience that feeling, when the fear of a disease is lifted.”

And this from Saul's final column linked above is less about reporting and more about – well, small miracles. (The “both” he refers to in the first sentence is the brilliant author, political journalist and literary critic, Christopher Hitchens, who died in 2011 of esophageal cancer.)

”Both of us owe our cancers and/or the cures not to divine intervention, but to the miracles of illness and health. They are life affirming.

“Life, illness, happiness, good fortune and bad, even good and bad presidents (I have covered) are all part of what the 11th Century Persian poet Omar Khayyam had in mind when he wrote, 'Be happy for this moment. This moment is your life.' And,

”That inverted bowl they call the sky,
Where under crawling, cooped we live and die.
Lift not your hands to it for help,
For it impotently moves as you or I.”

If, as I sometimes wonder, I am making some small difference for others as I ruminate on and write about my cancer journey, Saul even had something to say to me about that - from the same column:

”The point of all this, in a season made for reflection, is to tell the story of how it feels to become and stay old for one very lucky older American, for most of us, despite and because of illness, embrace life more fully than ever.”


SaulFriedman75x75 Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the twice-monthly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. His other column, Gray Matters, formerly published in Newsday, appears each Saturday.


Elitism: The Charge Obama Can’t Shake
- Peter Baker, The New York Times - October 30

It occurred to me after reading this that I think, therefore I too am an elitist. As a kid raised on the streets of Brighton Beach in Brooklyn with an ordinary public school education who has worked all my life, I’d be glad to be considered “elite.”

But I wonder if that was really the problem for Obama. In 2000, Al Gore couldn’t shake the charge, made up by journalists, that he was boring, that he sighed at the wrong time in a debate with a lesser intellect in George W. Bush.

And in 2004, John Kerry, a war hero who didn’t dodge the draft like Bush, was depicted in the press as ”another liberal elitist” because had a rich wife and spent time wind-surfing.

Baker writes that although Barack Obama was raised in modest circumstances in a broken family by a single mother, he had become a talented, thoughtful, intelligent and studious mixed-race lawyer-politician, a man who had attended Harvard and Yale. Therefore he was seen as a “snob,” Baker quoted one columnist who had worked as a speech writer for Bush and a Republican official.

In view of how the right wingers have treated Obama, do you suppose that those critics harbor perhaps a tinge of racism toward Obama, as an “uppity n----r who wasn’t even born in America?” Nah. We’re past that.

As I said, this discovery that I am now and may have been for some time an elitist came to me on a recent trip my wife and I made to get our annual New York City fix. We stayed at the comfortable and expensive Empire Hotel across from Lincoln Center, where we were to attend an opera. And after breakfast, I sat in the sparkling sun drenched plaza smoking a fine imported cigar. That made me feel special, if not elite. I didn’t realize that was something to hide.

The plaza was busy with tourists watching the beautiful Revsen fountain erupt like a geyser. A lawyer walked his two dogs then sat to chat and take in the scene. Young men with backpacks hurried to classes at Fordham. Younger women - girls, really, with high boots and black stockings and legs up to here - were on their way to Julliard.

These people also seemed special; they were students, visitors and professional people who were in or of one of the great civilized places in the world, Lincoln Center in the City of New York, just a few steps from the homes of the Metropolitan Opera, the New York Philharmonic and the New York City Opera. It’s a center for the very best in the arts, a place to feel elite.

So I wondered what is wrong with being elite? Certainly the President of the United States can be part of an elite; there aren’t that many presidents. Franklin Roosevelt, who came from wealth and solid Dutch-American aristocracy and had a relative who’d been president, was called "snooty” by his enemies. Although he spoke beautifully flowing English and was clearly a member of the nation’s elite, he was loved and even revered by millions of American, especially the poor and uneducated.

Today, we are conned by politicians like Bush who pride themselves on being like us when we need someone else, someone who has real brains, some knowledge and ideas on what to do about the mess we’re in and has the courage to do what he or she believes.

The idea that Sarah Palin or Sharron Angle or that O’Donnell person could lead the nation at this time seems absurd. We’ve already had a president like too many of us and look where it got us. After 60 years covering politics and a few presidents, I despair that we seem to be dumbing down the political system that was give us by the American elites of 18th century - Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Adams. I suppose that makes me an elitist fellow traveler.

My dictionary say that “elite” simply means “choice” or “select group.” And Wikipedia says,

“Elitism is the belief or attitude that some individuals, who supposedly form an elite – a select group of people with intellect, wealth, specialized training or experience...are most likely to be constructive to society...[and] especially fit to govern.”

Obviously, some members of an elite can be thieves or mad men but on the whole, who would argue that the best of us ought to represent us. That was Plato’s idea in The Republic. And it was the founder’s idea in fashioning the United States as a republican democracy in which Rousseau’s liberal self-government was tempered by Blackstone, i.e. the law.

Yet now, especially in the wake of the Great Recession in which millions of people have suffered because of the conduct of a business and banking elite, the people of the tea party movement purport to be populist and anti-elite, although it supports the policies of the very people who were responsible for the recession.

And they are among the strongest critics of elitism. If they were truly anti-elitism, they ought to count as egalitarians, favoring social security and even socialism. But they are the opposite. In fact, they are in league with the Grand Old Party of a business and banking elite. Go figure.

Jacob Weisberg, writing last October 2 for Slate where he is editor-in-chief, said,

“if there is one epithet the right never tires of it’s ‘elitism.’ Republicans are constantly accusing Democrats of it this campaign season, as when Kentucky senate nominee (and eventual winner) Rand Paul attacked President Obama as a ‘liberal elitist [who] knows what is best for people.’

“Republicans use it with connotations of education, geography, ideology. Taste and lifestyle – such that a millionaire investment banker who works for Goldman Sachs, went to Harvard and reads The New York Times is an elitist, but a billionaire CEO who grew up in Houston and went to a state university and contributes to Republicans, is not.”

In 2008, Senator John McCain and Sarah Palin identified with Joe the Plumber while tossing the elitist charge at Obama. As Weisberg wrote,

“Thus did the son and grandson of admirals, a millionaire who couldn’t remember how many houses he owned, accused his mixed-race opponent...of being the real elite candidate.”

Their complaint against elitism and Obama: He believes he knows better than Joe the Plumber how best to deal with the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. What’s wrong with that? Isn’t that why he wanted to be president? Anyone who seriously believes he/she can be president must have the background, maturity and confidence that he/she can govern.

Roosevelt, an aristocrat who had been a governor and Navy secretary, succeeded because he believed that his administration had some answers to the nation’s problems and that the Republican elite did not. Roosevelt did not compromise and turned out to be right. Obama compromised by catering to his critics and Republicans and has not yet succeeded.

There is what Weisberg calls a “counter snobbery” in the Republican elite-bashing. Palin, for example, held that those who live in the middle of the country, own guns, go to church are more the “real America.” To be gay, well educated, an agnostic, an atheist (God forbid) and live in New York or San Francisco and love classical music and (God forbid) opera, marks you as a liberal elitist.

Palin and company forget that the proletariat of Germany and Russia gave us the most murderous regimes in history. But like the tea baggers of today, they became useful idiots in the hands of the business and corporate elite. As Matt Taibbi writes in his book on the financial crisis, Griftopia, many of the tea party leaders in Congress know little of economics and high finance, and deny the science of climate change, evolution and stem cell biology.

“Common sense,” he writes, “sounds great but if you’re too lazy to penetrate the mysteries of carbon dioxide by the time you’re old enough to get to Congress, you’re not going to get the credit default swap...and understanding these instruments...is the difference between perceiving how Wall Street made its money as normal capitalist business and seeing...simple fraud and crime.”

That reminds me of a piece last February in Forbes by Pablo Triana Portela who fingered Robert Rubin, former Clinton Treasury Secretary and chairman of Citibank, as a personification of “America’s bad elitism.” For Rubin helped kill banking regulation, then made millions as a result and then, after Citigroup was driven onto the rocks, it (and he) were bailed out by taxpayer billions.

“When privilege is protected at the expense of the public purse,” said Portela, “America betrays herself.”

The question remains: Why have the elite – scientists, writers, artists, innovators, investors, the intelligent and thoughtful millionaires, teachers, journalists – come in for so much criticism? I found some explanations that ring true on a blog bripblap run by a fellow named Steve who says he is a well-paid financial consultant for Fortune 500 companies.

“Elitism has earned an ugly name over the past decade...political leaders sneer at elites,” he writes, “holding up underachievers as role models.” But many of the critics, he adds, are simply envious and “would like to be elite...

“You can disagree with the particular ideas or approaches chosen by elite members of society....In business, politics, science, art, religion...you need an elite. It’s not the elite as determined by birth, or Ivy League education. It’s the elite chosen by intelligence, by drive, by perseverance...I don’t know when that became an ugly attribute...”

Having survived the tough competition of journalism with a Pulitzer and a Nieman Fellowship, covering Texas and national politics and overcoming, so far, some grave threats to health, with help of a wife of 58 years and two darling daughters, sitting there in the sunshine at Lincoln Center, I felt privileged, like someone special - elite.

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At The Elder Storytelling Place today: Terry Hamburg: Dogs Back in the Good Old Days

REFLECTIONS: On Conflicts of Interest

SaulFriedman75x75 Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the twice-monthly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. His other column, Gray Matters, formerly published in Newsday, appears each Saturday.

Category_bug_reflections The word “whore” has been tossed around in this past unlamented campaign as if prostitution was no longer one of the oldest and honorable endeavors. One such epithet was hurled anonymously at a California gubernatorial candidate for doing what politicians and prostitutes do - cut deals with voters and clients. A liberal congressman called the chairman of the Fed a “K-street whore.”

Two prominent pols - one a senator, the other a former governor who used the services of prostitutes while on the job - have survived; one got re-elected and the other found new fame and riches as a journalist, of all things, despite their first hand experience with whores.

I’m sure there were others who didn’t get caught. And a former madam, who serviced politicians, was one of seven candidates running for governor of the Empire State.

I am not a prude and see no problem mixing prostitution and politics, which is the second oldest profession. Politics, after all, is a business in which the practitioner sells himself, makes deals for votes and money and shows a little leg but tries not to give it away too cheaply. But we in the press, if we are not selling our bodies, should have a different, if not a higher standard.

That sort of behavior, peddling our skills and our independence, is or should be out of bounds for those of us who cover, critique and explain the positions of the politicians. But, I’m sorry to say, that too many of my former colleagues in the press have gone to bed with the politicians, lobbyists and corporate big shots they supposed to cover.

They are the whores worth worrying about in any election. And such prostitution, outrageous conflicts of interest in journalism (as well as the law, academia and even medicine), has become epidemic. One can no longer tell the difference between prostitutes and the press except maybe the price they ask. And worse, we don’t seem to give a damn about such behavior; it’s taken for granted.

There was a time in the craft of journalism in which I grew up and served for more than 50 years, when the working reporters, editors and even publishers bent over backwards to avoid or explain conflicts of interest. One of my gods, the New Yorker’s A.J. Liebling, the best press critic ever, told me one night over a cup of coffee that the boxing writer ought to tell his readers whether or not he paid to get into the fight.

A New York Times editor said it more colorfully when he fired a woman who had been sleeping with and taking gifts from someone under investigation whom she covered: “You can cover the circus,” he said, “but you can’t screw the elephants.”

For years, I did not register for any party for fear that someone would use that information to judge the credibility of my reporting; I joined only the local press club. That didn’t mean I was not able to comment or be subjective after I had some experience and knowledge, but my lack of a party identification added credibility to my work.

And as important, sources trusted me to tell their side of the story. Would you believe that some of my best sources and stories came from Houston’s Republicans, including the county chairman, George H.W. Bush?

Some newspapers have paid for the tickets to theaters and concerts their critics covered so they could be free to write their views no matter how they hurt the production. One of my publishers turned down a position on the symphony board because of the possibility of a conflict that might discourage the paper’s critic from panning a performance or reporting on problems within the orchestra.

Another editor refused to join the local chamber of commerce because of a possible conflict with a reporter’s coverage of the organization. On another occasion, my Washington Bureau colleagues and political reporters throughout the chain raised hell with its top executive who had an interview with Richard Nixon and suggested we go easy on him. The executive relented.

Now consider the prostitution of Fox News. It’s bad enough that its owner, Rupert Murdoch, has given $2 million to Republican organizations; that is his prerogative. But what does that tell the reporters and editors who work for Fox and want to hold onto their jobs?

Even worse, Fox News has put on its payroll, as commentators, the politicians it’s supposed to cover. Fox’s claim of “fair and balanced” coverage would be funny if it weren’t a lie. How would we know from Fox what the truth is?

As Politico reporters Jonathan Martin and Keach Hagey wrote on September 27,

“With Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, (former Republican senator), Rick Santorum and (former Republican governor) Mike Huckabee all making moves indicating they may run for president, their common employer (Fox) is facing a question that hasn’t been asked before: How does a news organization cover White House hopefuls when so many are on the payroll?”

Indeed, how can you trust anything that’s said?

The report continued, calling them

“the Fox candidates....With the exception of Mitt Romney, Fox now has deals with every major potential Republican presidential candidate not currently in elected office.”

No wonder their right-wing commentaries go unchallenged by Fox’s reporters. No wonder that none is held to account for their radical views and, yes, their misinformation and lies. And no wonder they refuse to be interviewed by other, less friendly, reporters.

Even one of Fox’s better commentators, Greta Van Sustern, an attorney who should know better, was compromised and lost any remaining credibility and integrity when Fox hired her husband as a political adviser.

According to Media Matters, which has done the best job of chronicling Fox’s streetwalking, these prospective candidates made 269 appearances through the end of September. I’ll bet you can’t remember a single legitimate news story these appearances yielded. They usually decline to be on other programs for fear of making fools of themselves. But that’s the way it is with whores; they generally leave their clients unsatisfied and poorer.

It is true that MSNBC has a lineup of liberal commentators in Rachel Maddow, Keith Olbermann, Ed Schultz and Lawrence O’Donnell. But most of them, especially Maddow, make it a point to seek challenging interviews with those who hold opposing views.

And as far as I know, there are no politicians on MSNBC’s payroll. Their standards of journalism and accuracy remain high and in no way do their commentaries compare to the viciousness of Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly who are at war with MSNBC and would pounce on any error.

At a strategy meeting in October, Delaware Republican and Tea Bagger Senate candidate, Christine O’Donnell told party leaders who had withheld funds because they’d been hard-pressed to explain her nutty views, that she didn’t care because she “had Sean Hannity in my back pocket, and I can go on his show and raise money by attacking you guys.”

As far as I know, Hannity has not said otherwise; he’s been in other pockets. But O’Donnell was taking the advice of her sister, paid contributor Sarah Palin, who told O’Donnell to ignore the main stream press and “speak to the American people, speak through Fox News.”

Palin herself turned to Fox News after she embarrassed herself, unable to give cogent answers to legitimate reporters. And so did Nevada’s Sharron Angle, who boasted of the money Fox helped her raise.

There is no fear among nut case candidates of having to make sense or giving meaningful answers to Fox interviewers. Washington Senate candidate, Republican Dino Rossi, has given five interviews on Fox. One typical question from a Fox anchor: “There’s a lot of pressure on you...How [are] you holding up?”

Hannity had a zinger: “So what story is it that you want to tell...that’s going to put you over the top.”

Rossi was then given an opportunity to make a pitch for campaign contributions. Needless to say, the incumbent Democrat, Senator Patty Murray, who was ahead in the race, was not invited to Fox.

Fox’s openly unfair and unbalanced behavior on virtually all its programming would have met with government opposition until 1987; Fox, after all, gets federal dollars and tax breaks and uses public access channels.

Beginning in 1949, the Federal Communications Commission enforced a “fairness doctrine” instead of worrying about exposed breasts and dirty words. The fairness doctrine called for holders of broadcast licenses to present controversial issues in a fair, honest and equitable manner.

It worked for nearly 40 years because broadcasters were careful. But in 1987, President Reagan abolished it as part of his deregulation campaign. Democrats have been trying to restore it, but Republicans, of course, like things the way they are.

The things Beck, Limbaugh and O’Reilly say are mostly reprehensible and even dangerous, but they are entertainers disguised as journalists. My greater problem is with people who purport to be journalists and reporters but haven’t the faintest idea of the reason for the protections they have under the First Amendment.

Indeed, they may not know that they are seriously weakening the First Amendment, although I doubt that they care. The evidence? Too many Americans have as little faith in the press as they do for politicians; real prostitutes get better grades.

Liebling once said that “freedom of the press belongs to those who own one.” But the reporter has a great responsibility in enforcing that freedom by holding his/her press owner to some modicum of fealty to the First Amendment. Many is the time that reporters have all but forced reluctant publishers to run risky stories. That was the case with the Washington Post’s coverage of Watergate, and The New York Times’ publication of the Pentagon papers.

Unfortunately, despite its record for pander and prostitution, Fox News was awarded Helen Thomas’ front row seat in the White House briefing room. So I asked the president of the White House Correspondents Association whether the organization, of which I had been a member, could vouch for the integrity and accuracy of Fox’s White House correspondent. There was no reply.

A friend, Barry Sussman, editor of the Nieman Foundation’s Nieman Watchdog, faults many news organizations for putting on the air candidates and political party operatives who predictably “are only promoting their party’s interest” with lies and exaggerations rather than giving genuine opinions of people who are the subjects of the interview.

Sussman, who edited most of the Watergate stories while at the Post, criticized most of the networks and cable stations for hiring pols and legitimate correspondents as contributors.

“As to damage to journalism,” he added, “The damage isn’t being done by Fox, or Beck or Limbaugh; it’s being done by other news organizations as they respond by caving in, failing to adhere to journalistic standards and by treating Fox as though it were a legitimate news organization.”

Fox News, sad to say, is not the only media whore working the streets. In 2008, the new and naive publisher of the Washington Post, Katharine Weymouth, and her hapless editor came up with a brilliant idea, inviting Washington’s movers and shakers to come to “salons,“ dinners at her home for a hefty price to listen to reporters give them the inside story on pending issues and legislation. The first one was to be on President Obama’s proposed health reforms. Some of the invited guests were preparing to battle against those forms.

It took a leak and the outcry of staff members to force Weymouth to cancel the dinners and apologize. I do not understand why she didn’t know from the outset that the idea was a major conflict of interest. Would the late Katherine Graham or her editor Ben Bradlee have countenanced such blindness?

Too many in the press fell for the seeming grass roots populism of the Tea Party and gave it mostly uncritical coverage. Maddow was one of the first to explore the reality instead of the romanticism.

We now know, as Adele Stan has documented for AlterNet and The Nation, on October 24, that the Tea Party is not the grass roots movement it claims to be. It was financed, in large part, by several billionaires and organized by veteran right-wing activists and politicians. As she wrote,

“The Tea Party wouldn’t exist without a gusher of cash from oil billionaire David H. Koch and the vast media empire of Rupert Murdoch.”

She named the groups headed by right-wing political operatives who provided the seed millions to put on the Tea Party rallies. They included Americans for Prosperity, chaired by Koch and Freedom Works, headed by former House Republican Leader Richard Armey and financed by the Koch brothers.

Only recently have some members of the press looked behind the curtain to see whose money is pulling the Tea Party’s strings. But others of my former brethren are getting some of that money as guests of the Koches.

As the blog ThinkProgress reported, David and Charles Koch hosted closed meetings with executives from the health insurance, coal, banking and other industries to plan strategy for the midterm elections, including where their millions in campaign contributions should go to help Republicans kill the Democratic majority and the Obama administration. The tens of millions of dollars they and their corporate allies have spent is unprecedented.

The first meeting was in June and another was held more recently. Among those invited, wined, dined and paid to attend the earlier meeting, according to Joe Conason of Salon, were several journalists including Michael Barone, a paid contributor to the Washington Examiner and Fox News; Washington Post columnist, Charles Krauthammer and National Review editor Ramesh Ponnuru who has defended Christine O’Donnell’s misunderstanding of the First Amendment on religion.

I find it ironic that these veteran journalists, who call themselves Constitution conservatives, would give aid and comfort to those bankers, brokers and big business executives who, with billions of dollars would buy an election and enhance the already unseemly power of corporate America, which is no friend of democratic government, a really free press or the whole of the Bill of Rights.

Indeed, when you come right down to it, I do not think these journalists or their corporate patrons have the morals, values or the integrity of the average streetwalker.

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Mimi Torchia Boothby: It's All in a Name


SaulFriedman75x75 Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the twice-monthly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. His other column, Gray Matters, formerly published in Newsday, appears each Saturday.

Category_bug_reflections Most of us have been taught to stay away from discussing politics and religion so as not to disturb the dinner guests. Well, as most of you know, I’ve been covering politics for so long I can barely discuss anything else.

And the freedom TGB gives me in writing these little essays compels me to confess that I do not recall when it was that I came out of the closet. That’s when I acknowledged that I’m an atheist, that I do not believe there is a God.

In fact, I don’t know why I capitalized the “G.” Although it may be blasphemous, I have had a bumper sticker that says, “I believe in Dog.” That’s because I have a love affair with my two Corgies and I generally have a higher regard for animals than many of the humans I’ve covered in high positions. I have wondered if the Bibles got it wrong and meant to spell it “Dog.”

Seriously, coming out of the closet happened slowly. At first I suppose I was an agnostic, telling myself and others that there may be a higher power, that I could not define, for all things alive have in common a compulsion to live, survive and grow.

Where does that come from? I didn’t know. I studied philosophy in university and read Aquinas’ proofs for the existence of god and understood Aristotle’s idea of the “prime” or “unmoved mover.”

I did not know whether or not I believed in the god that hung around guiding our lives. But I could not bring myself to believe in a personal being who played magic tricks like George Burns. If man was made in his image, what must he look like? Or she?

I am told by friends that something or some one must have caused the “big bang” and that somebody or some thing or power had to be there to start things off in evolution. But I can’t even imagine that possibility. Some giant hand cranking the universe into motion?

I remember arguing in a philosophy class that if the universe was infinite, why did it have to have a beginning? I did not know, and neither does anyone else. But that was an agnostic copout. Now I know. As Stephen Hawking now asserts, if there was a beginning, there is an explanation that did not need a god.

But isn’t the spirituality that we all feel evidence of god? Experiencing the sublime is spiritual, but it’s no proof of a god. All of us have experienced spiritual moments when we wonder what moves us to think, probe and overcome. Music moves me. Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” is spiritual and beautiful. Beethoven’s Ode to Joy can make me cry.

All men are brothers came from the Judaic concept that there is but one god. I am a Jew who takes pride in that heritage. But I cannot believe that god, looking like Charlton Heston’s Moses, exists.

It is true that there is some sort of order in our universe; we can predict the movements in the solar system. But there is also chaos (see Haiti). Our bodies, the results of millions of years of evolution, are indeed wondrous, but they tend to get sick and even die from little bugs and terrible afflictions.

The believers’ god works in strange and mysterious ways, but what sort of omnipotent, omniscient god tolerates a child with terminal leukemia or the holocaust of six million “chosen people” or the genocides in Bosnia and the Congo and the Sudan?

Believers praise god for sparing them from the tornado’s wrath (as if the tornado was anthropomorphic), but do they blame god for the deaths of those who were not spared?

But I have digressed. I have been comforted in coming out as an atheist by the September 28 Pew Research Center’s survey of religious knowledge in the U.S. It turns out that atheists or agnostics scored highest on a test consisting of questions about various religions. I should note here that 95 percent of Americans believe in god; just five percent of us are nonbelievers.

Jews and Mormons came in a close second or third. Indeed, the most observant or fundamentalist among us tended to know the least.

Half the respondents did not know that Martin Luther inspired the Protestant reformation or that the Golden Rule (“Do unto others...”) is not one of the Ten Commandments. Atheists/agnostics knew most about religion, the survey concluded, because they tend to have more education.

I would add that atheists are unencumbered by dogma. Atheists generally are more free to think of things that no one had thought of.

Copernicus, Galileo, Darwin and Einstein broke free from god and religion and some suffered for it. Only recently has the Catholic Church recognized that the earth revolves around the sun; and Judaism forgave the philosopher Spinoza, who was excommunicated from the Jewish community in Amsterdam because he believed that god was everywhere in nature; indeed god was nature and vice versa.

I should point out here that I draw a distinction – a sharp one at that – between those who worship and hope there is a god, and organized religion. That’s because the average believer in god stands in awe of the possibility there is a supreme being that he or she cannot know or fathom. But most organized religions have the temerity to define, limit and tell us what god thinks, and which country he/she will bless in war.

Organized religions, on a personal level, use books written eons ago by uneducated (by our standards), mostly superstitious and primitive minds to tell us how to behave. And as we know, some people believe these are literal truths.

I can’t quarrel with the Ten Commandments, but they are honored in the breach - that is, they are broken so often by god-fearing men and women, they are not to be taken seriously.

If they were truly observed as the bibles and koran admonish, The New York Times' Nicholas Kristoff told us in his own test of religious knowledge that the Old Testament stipulates that a girl who does not bleed on her wedding night should be stoned to death. Kristoff notes that Jesus made no comment on homosexuality, but the Old Testament says, “if a man also lies with mankind as he lieth with a woman” both shall be put to death.

All this is silly and outdated for most of us, even those who believe in god. But about 20-25 percent who are fundamentalist Christians and ultra-orthodox Jews and Muslims believe their scriptures are literally true and the word of god. But, alas, they also believe literally that non-believers are infidels and therefore a threat. And if there is no wall of separation between the religion and the state, then a threat against the religion becomes a threat against the state.

When I visited Israel as a journalist with U.S. secretaries of state who were there for the first time, Israeli officials took us on a tour of Yad Vashem, the somber and heart-wrenching memorial to the holocaust that cost the lives of six million Jews, not to mention Gypsies, Russians, Poles and anti-Nazi Germans.

In Damascus, we were taken to the Mosque where Saladin is buried and there we learned that the crusaders who came from England were not the heroes of Christendom who we studied in school or saw in romantic movies, but bloodthirsty rapists and conquerors wielding the cross as a reason to slaughter Muslims and Jews.

Saladin, a moderate and even chivalrous ruler who treated his captives well, at last defeated the Third Crusade in the 12th century. But the memory of the crusades among Muslims lingers and has been seen in the reaction to American aggression in the Middle East.

Indeed, as I think on it, much of my reporting has been about religious-based conflicts:

Between Hindus and Muslims in India and Pakistan

The semi-secular state of Afghanistan and the Taliban, which would resurrect the 10th century

The Shiites of Iran and the Sunnis of Iraq

Israel and its Muslim neighbors, some of them secular like the Palestinians, some deeply religious like Hamas

The Protestants and Catholics of Northern Ireland

The Serbian war against Bosnia pitted Catholics against Muslims

Hitler was Catholic, raised in an anti-Semitic environment

Stalin was raised in the Russian Orthodox tradition and he attended seminary, from which he was expelled, in backward Georgia.

It seems the more devout the religion, the more violent its actions against its perceived enemies. Kristoff points out that using suicide vests and women for terror bombings began not with the Jihadists, but with the Tamil Hindus in Sri Lanka.

I think it can be said that more people have been killed or subjugated in the name of an organized religion than in the name of atheism.

When the state religion or church has been attacked, the motives of the opposition were generally political as when Henry VIII and his daughter Elizabeth replaced the Catholic Church with the Church of England, and when the Bolsheviks, who overthrew the Czar and all but outlawed the Russian Orthodox Church that supported the monarchy.

Similarly, the reactionary and corrupt Catholic Church in Latin America became a target of revolutionaries. Wasn’t the attack on the World Trade Center and the deaths of thousands a religion-based initiative?

I do not believe, however, that any nation has gone to war or committed atrocities in the name of atheism.

Yet even now, in this country, the legal wall of separation between church and state is hacked at by religionists who hold atheism almost a crime. We are told by the rabid right that liberals and other nonbelievers are trying to kill Christmas, as if the merchandisers have no responsibility.

These Christian fundamentalists, the American Taliban, would figuratively stone the homosexual or the kill the doctor who performs abortions. One Pew poll in 2006 found that more than 40 percent of Americans don’t believe in evolution and that included prominent Republicans running for president two years ago.

These fundamentalists, according to the poll, deny the science that tells us the earth is millions of years old. In lockstep with the Republican Party, they deny climate change and man’s role in global warming. I suppose god has decided to kill the polar bears.

So it was a comfort to see that I had admirable company when I came out as an atheist: Woody Allen, Kurt Vonnegut, Richard Dawkins, Katharine Hepburn, Warren Buffett, Salman Rushdie, Diane Keaton, Bill Gates, Gene Roddenberry, among dozens of celebrities whom you can find at Celebrity Atheist List.

Finally, there are many quotes from prominent writers artists and statesmen proclaiming their atheism, but my favorite came recently from the great novelist Philip Roth during an interview on CBS’s Sunday Morning. Roth, who grew up in New Jersey, said, “I don’t have a religious bone in my body.”

“So do you feel like there’s a god out there?” he was asked.

“I’m afraid there isn’t, no...When the whole world doesn’t believe in god, it’ll be a great place.”

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Ralph Lymburner: Munjoy Hill

REFLECTIONS: On Liberalism

SaulFriedman75x75 Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the twice-monthly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. His other column, Gray Matters, formerly published in Newsday, appears each Saturday.

Category_bug_reflections I think I’ve figured out what’s been bothering me about President Obama. He is intelligent, articulate, maddeningly cool, calm and pragmatic and his values seem humane and liberal. But in rejecting any semblance of an ideology, he seems to have no firm set of ideas that guide his policies and to which he is committed, which may explain why he moves so easily to the center.

In sum, I am bothered because I believe he is the personification of the decline of the liberalism I grew up with and generally supported most of my life.

Obama called himself a “progressive” when he was in the Senate. But I can’t imagine him saying, now, what John F. Kennedy said, when asked to define a liberal:

“...someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people...If that is what they mean by a ‘Liberal’, then I’m proud to say I’m a ‘Liberal.’”

If there is a difference between Obama and most of his Democratic predecessors, Roosevelt, Truman, Johnson or Kennedy, all of whom were unafraid to call themselves liberals, it’s that there is no real liberal movement behind him. Indeed, Obama seems to have rejected such a movement, although I’m not sure there is much of what could be called a liberal movement left.

The word “progressive” is empty of commitment or meaning. Liberalism, after all, has a long and honorable place in the history of political thought, and it has meaning, which we are losing.

I’m not talking about the left of center blogosphere which is ephemeral, self-absorbed, splintered and politically fickle. I do not see that it has an abiding set of beliefs or loyalties or interests, beyond the blog, which lasts only as long in the universe as a twitter of text. It goes without saying that the most liberal of blogs have little to do with trade unions, which have been at the heart of the liberal agenda.

But I’m getting ahead of myself, for the tweets of Twitter and Facebook and the blogs have zilch to do with the liberalism in my lifetime.

As I’ve recounted, I came of age in the Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn. A mostly Jewish enclave on the shores of the Atlantic. Our neighbors in nearby Coney Island were Italian. And virtually all of us came from immigrant families who knew enough about politics to have fled the old countries.

In America they joined unions or fellowships like the Workmen’s Circle and the Italian American Social Club. But the unions gave that generation and mine great political and, yes, class consciousness and strength.

The International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union, the rival Amalgamated Clothing Workers, the Furriers, the Cloakmakers and Hatmakers were among those, mostly Jewish-led, unions that became powerful and wealthy New York institutions that even built housing for workers.

Elsewhere in America, the Boston Irish organized the men and women who worked in the textile mills of New England; the United Mine Workers of the legendary John L. Lewis brought some semblance of sanity, dignity and safety to the mines of West Virginia and Pennsylvania.

The International Workers of the World (the Wobblies) organized with bloody struggles against company goons, the copper mines of Montana and the far west and gave us songs like Joe Hill.

In Michigan, the United Auto Workers with the Reuther brothers were born in radical sit-down strikes in which they and their families took over the factories to fight the violence from Ford’s strikebreaking thugs. Longshoremen, merchant seamen, retail store workers, waiters and newsmen were organized, despite the lack of laws, to protect their right to do so.

The politics of these workers – and most did not bother to vote – ranged across the ideological spectrum: anarchist, communist, syndicalist, socialist, incipient fascist and Democrat. But no Democrat had been elected since Woodrow Wilson; the progressive Republican era of Theodore Roosevelt had died and very few working Americans had anything in common with the then dominant Republicans of Herbert Hoover and his ultra-conservative Treasury Secretary, Andrew Mellon, who was a social Darwinist believing, after the 1929 market crash, in the economic survival of only the fittest.

The obvious political vacuum was explored first by the unsuccessful 1928 presidential candidacy of New York’s Irish Catholic governor, Al Smith. But it was left to Smith’s vice-presidential pick and his successor in Albany, New York Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt to put together a coalition of union workers, big city ethnic groups from immigrant backgrounds who had been left out of American politics and family farmers who had lost almost everything in what came to be known as the Great Depression.

Catholics, Jews, southerners (who boycotted the party of Lincoln) and midwestern Protestants choking on the barrage of dust that buried their farms – these were among the forces that came together for the Roosevelt landslide in 1932.

Some revisionist historians claim the New Deal was an afterthought, tailored by a pragmatic president to meet the crises of the Depression. But the fact is that the Roosevelts – Franklin and Eleanor – were keenly aware of the suffering among the people who voted for them. As Roosevelt said,

“I see one-third of the nation, ill-clothed, ill-housed and ill-fed.”

And unlike too many Democrats, before and after him, he moved not to the center but to the left. With the help of advisors, his “brain trust,” many of them from Yale and Jewish, he fashioned policies that kept faith with the people who voted for him. He was proud to fight those who didn’t.

The New Deal gave the people who voted for him jobs through the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps. But more important and longer lasting was the National Labor Relations Act which protected the right to organize labor unions; the Wages and Hours Law, which institutionalized the 40-hour week; the Child Labor Laws; and, as part of the Social Security Act, unemployment insurance.

The New Deal took on the Andrew Mellons and the banks, curbing runaway speculation with Glass-Steagall and the National Banking Act; the Wall Street barons with the Securities and Exchange Commission; and the commercial pirates with the Federal Trade Commission.

No small part was played by Roosevelt's talented cabinet appointees including Interior Secretary Harold Ickes, Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Labor Secretary Frances Perkins and the Agriculture Secretary, Henry Wallace.

In short, the New Deal became the expression of modern American liberalism which saved capitalism from the demands of those more radical and angry socialist and communist elements of the American working classes, but moderated and transformed the excesses of the free and unfettered market.

Those, of course, are the hallmarks of social and political liberalism in an industrial society.

The Depression dragged on, with some improvement, until the great stimulus of the Second World War. But as Wikipedia notes,

“[T]he programs of the New Deal were extremely popular, as they improved the life of the common citizen by providing jobs for the unemployed, legal protection for labor unionists, modern utilities for rural America [through the great dams in the west, the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Rural Electrification Association], living wages for the working poor and price stability for the family farmer.”

Because Roosevelt remained faithful to those who brought him to the presidency, the voters stayed with him through his death in 1945, as he led the nation out of its traditional isolationism towards Europe to help his friend Winston Churchill and the Soviet Union’s Joseph Stalin confront the threat of fascism.

And even while fighting a two-front war against Hitler and the Japanese Empire, Roosevelt built on his New Deal with his call for Four Freedoms and the organization of the United Nations with Eleanor as it early ambassador.

Indeed, the Roosevelt-liberal coalition and the Democrats as the nation’s majority party, remained generally intact through 1968, the end of the presidency of Lyndon Johnson who had been a New Deal member of Congress. As President, Johnson renewed the liberal agenda with Medicare, Medicaid and landmark civil rights laws.

Alas, beginning with the Cold War and the rise of McCarthyist red-baiting, liberals in self-defense, joined in the anti-communism fervor, which led America into two winless wars.

But despite the elections of Republicans Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, most of the great pillars of New Deal Liberalism – the labor laws, Social Security, the SEC, the FDIC and the FTC stood the test of turbulent times.

To the country’s great shame, one of the most important elements of New Deal liberalism, the Glass-Steagall Act, was killed under a Democrat, Bill Clinton, in 1999, and the nation has not yet paid the price of turning the banking industry and Wall Street loose on the American economy. (Clinton, caving in to the demands of Newt Gingrich, also permitted the beginning of the privatization of Medicare.)

The end of Glass-Steagall, which was murdered by Clinton’s banker, Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin and his sucessor, Lawrence Summers, was, in large part, what marked the decline of my brand of liberalism. Clinton, proud to be a centrist, had declared, “the era of big government is over.” And he hailed the end of Glass-Steagall giving a signing pen to Sanford Weill of Citigroup who gave the top job in the company to Rubin.

Thus, according to the acerbic journalist Chris Hedges, liberal government and governance of the robber barons had been replaced by the worship of Wall Street and corporatism. At the same time, as Robert Higgs wrote in a preface to Arthur Ekirch’s book, The Decline of American Liberalism,

“[L]iberalism once meant embrace of commerce and material progress, but this presumes an environment of peace and diplomacy as a means of resolving conflict...Liberals embraced militarism and dragged liberalism down with it. That dramatic shift led to the invention of this creature called conservatism.”

Hedges, a Pulitzer Prize winning former correspondent for The New York Times, goes further. He wrote for Truthdig on September 13,

“There are no longer any major institutions in American society, including the press, the educational system, the financial sector, labor unions, the arts, religious institutions and our dysfunctional political parties, which can be considered democratic.

“The intent, design and function of these institutions, controlled by corporate money, are to bolster the hierarchical and anti-democratic power of the corporate state. These institutions, often mouthing liberal values, abet and perpetuate mounting inequality....

“(See the latest census figures documenting that inequality; the rich are getting very rich and the poor are mostly out of work).

“The menace we face does not come from the insane wing of the Republican Party...but the institutions tasked with protecting democratic participation....Do not fear the tea party movement, the birthers, the legions of conspiracy theorists...Fear the underlying corporate power structure, which no one, from Barack Obama to the right wing nut cases...can alter.”

He quotes my old friend, Ralph Nader:

“The corporate state is the ultimate maturation of American-style fascism. They leave wide areas of personal freedom so that people confuse personal freedom with civic freedom...But they do not have the freedom to participate in the decisions about war, foreign policy, domestic health and safety issues, taxes or transportation...

“[T]he price of the corporate state is a deteriorating political economy...the question is, at what point are enough people going to have a breaking point in terms of their own economic plight..to say, enough is enough.”

Hedges concluded:

“The failure of the Obama administration to use the bailout and stimulus money to build public works...has snuffed out any hope of serious economic, political reform coming from the corporate state...the rot and corruption at the top levels of our financial and political systems, coupled with the increasing deprivation felt by tens of millions of Americans are volatile tinder for a horrific right-wing backlash in the absence of a committed socialist alternative.”

Or the kind of committed, grass roots and trade union-based liberalism that has been part of the American tradition. Perhaps it lurks somewhere among the blogs. Perhaps.

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Johna Ferguson: Always Women

REFLECTIONS: On A Devil and a Saint

SaulFriedman75x75 Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the twice-monthly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. His other column, Gray Matters, formerly published in Newsday, appears each Saturday.

Category_bug_reflections My years in daily journalism enabled me to meet the best and the worst: A quiet, unassuming young woman in my Cape Town writing class had her own story to tell; she had been imprisoned and tortured by the South African regime she fought and now she wanted to be a political reporter in her newly freed country.

Some years earlier, a Houston detective who was a friend, lectured school kids (including mine) on the evils of drugs, then killed himself a few yards from my office at police headquarters because he too turned out to be a drug dealer.

No wonder reporters become cynics; the evil that men do lives after them the good is too often buried with them. Recently I was reminded of a couple of memorable encounters in one of my last years in daily reporting, 1995, when I met, interviewed and wrote about a devil and a true saint.

Satan, in this case, was personified by Newton Leroy (Newt) Gingrich, who was then the new speaker of the House of Representatives. The saint was (and is) Dr. Frances Kathleen Oldham Kelsey, a senior pharmacologist for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, who was still working at age 80 when I met her.

As far as I know, Gingrich and Dr. Kelsey have never met. But in a manner of speaking, their paths crossed in early 1995, which is how I came to meet them both that year.

Gingrich’s blustering and boisterous Republicans had taken over the Congress and were shaking up Washington with their notorious “Contract for America.” Dr. Kelsey, who had been given a medal by President John F. Kennedy in 1963, still came to work daily at her cluttered desk in Washington’s suburbs, reviewing applications for new prescription drugs, protecting the safety of the millions who use medicines. Indeed, because of people like Dr. Kelsey, the U.S. brands approved by the FDA are the most trusted.

For those who don’t know or have forgotten who she is, Dr. Kelsey, a Canadian born M.D., had gotten her training in the Thirties as a researcher in pharmacology at the University of Chicago. Her boss, E.M.K. Geiling, had hired her thinking Frances was a man. She accepted the job without telling him the truth.

She distinguished herself assisting him in discovering, on contract with the FDA, that a popular drug, Elixir Sulfanilamide, had caused 107 deaths because of an ingredient, diethylene glycol, a solvent now used as anti-freeze. Two years later, in 1938, the Congress passed the landmark Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act. It would not be the last time that Kelsey would have a profound effect on our food and drug laws. Kelsey won her PhD as a result of her work and had developed an interest in drugs that caused congenital malformations.

Fast forward to 1960 after she obtained her M.D. and married a colleague, Dr. Fremont Ellis Kelsey, (they have two daughters). That year Frances came to work at the FDA as one of a few physicians reviewing drugs and one of her first assignments was to consider the application of a drug maker William S. Merrill to license a drug called Kevadon, whose generic name was thalidomide.

The drug, developed in Germany, was a popular and best-selling sedative or tranquilizer, depending on the dosage, because it relieved nausea and other discomforts of pregnancy during the first trimester.

It was widely used in Canada, 20 European countries and Africa, but not in the largest market, the U.S. You can imagine the pressure she was under from Merrill, which had millions of dollars at stake. Some of her bosses pressed Kelsey for a decision. But she persisted in seeking additional information to explain a curious British study that documented nervous system side effects and possible birth defects.

By the spring of 1962, she was reading reports from Europe, in the technical literature not widely circulated in the States, that many of the thousands of mothers who had taken thalidomide were reporting horribly deformed babies – born with flippers, but no arms or legs. The impatient drug maker, William S. Merrill, mimimized these reports and gave away some thalidomide pills as a promotion, which added pressure on Kelsey (and resulted in ten deformed children).

Enter a Washington Post reporter, Morton Mintz, who by way of another reporter got a tip from an aide to the late Senator Estes Kefauver (D, Tenn.) that Kelsey had been fighting a battle to keep the drug off the American market. Kefauver had been trying to strengthen the FDA and thalidomide seemed a perfect example of the law’s weakness.

In July 1962, after interviewing Kelsey and pinning down what was happening to thousands of children outside the U.S., Mintz broke his story, a lengthy piece that began

“This is the story of how the skepticism and stubbornness of a government physician prevented what could have been an appalling American tragedy, the birth of hundreds or indeed thousands of armless and legless children.”

Dr. Kelsey, he wrote, “saw her duty in sternly simple terms and she carried it out, living the while with insinuations that she was a bureaucratic nitpicker, unreasonable and even...stupid.”

As a result of the story, Kelsey’s work and the ghastly photographs of deformed children (there were relatively few in the U.S.), the Congress passed a series of amendments to the Food and Drug and Cosmetics Act in 1962 requiring that drugs must be effective as well as safe, which meant extensive testing.

Kelsey, as I mentioned, was awarded the Distinguished Civilian Service Medal in August, 1963, become a legend at the FDA and one of the most honored civil servants.

But as you would expect, the drug manufacturers, now called the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Research Association, were unhappy with those Kefauver amendments, charging that prolonged testing was too costly and kept needed, if risky, drugs from the market for too long.

During the deregulation campaigns of the Reagan and first Bush administrations, the size and budgets of the FDA suffered by as much as 30 percent. Reagan claimed that delays in drug approvals were “needlessly killing Americans.” But the agency persisted and Democratic congresses resisted attempts to dilute the laws.

But after Republicans took control of the Congress in 1994, Newt Gingrich declared war on the agency calling it the “number one job killer in the U.S.” And, with his customary hyperbole, he called the agency’s head, Dr. David Kessler “a bully and a thug.”

Kessler’s crime? Trying to label tobacco a substance to be regulated. As Mother Jones magazine reported, “a powerful bloc of critics in the drug industry has joined hands with the Republican Congress...to overhaul the FDA.”

Indeed, Gingrich formed an organization headed by a crony, the Progress & Freedom Foundation, which proposed placing the responsibility for the testing and review of drugs in the hands of private firms, including the drug companies. FDA spokesman Jim O’Hara charged that what

“...this proposes is the dismantling of many of the safeguards that protect the public from drugs and devices that are unsafe or just don’t work. This is a proposal that says public health and safety are commodities for the market place.”

The Progress & Freedom Foundation, supported by contributions of drug manufacturers, also sought to limit the liability for drug companies if their products killed patients.

As a Newsday reporter assigned to cover the new Congress and Gingrich, I remembered the work of Dr. Kelsey on thalidomide and, to my surprise, she was still on the job. O’Hara arranged an interview so I could ask her about the latest attacks on her agency and the drug industry’s attempt to take over what she’s been doing for 57 years – carefully, with occasional nitpicking, reviewing the efficacy and safety of the drugs we give to ourselves and our children.

Kelsey, then the director of the FDA Office of Scientific Investigations, was publicity shy. But when I saw her, she was moved to speak out.

“The drugs today are not castor oil,” she said. “I’ve lived through days when we didn’t have the advantage of today’s regulations and look what happened. Now drugs have gotten far more complex and, yes, dangerous. There is margin of safety. Let’s not go backwards. We’ve seen enough tragedy.”

An industry lobbyist told me at the time that many drug manufacturers don’t want the responsibility for reviewing and approving drugs for that meant giving up the safety seal of approval they get from an FDA license. Other industry lobbyists sought to repeal the Kefauver amendments and leave the question of efficacy to the doctor and the patient. Kelsey told me,

“In a perfect world, that might work if doctors knew what they were doing and patients knew what they were getting. But drugs and genetic engineering compounds are becoming increasingly complex.”

William Schultz, then the FDA’s deputy commissioner added,

“All drugs carry some degree of risk. We are prepared to take the risks, as we do with the horrible side effects of chemotherapy, if the drugs are also effective. But if the risks outweigh the effectiveness and the FDA cannot require efficacy, then there can only be confusion about what drugs to take. And a very vulnerable population will be open to fraud.”

As things turned out, the FDA stepped up its approval process and gave industry some responsibility for reviewing some if its products. But the Kefauver amendments, the direct result of Kelsey’s work on thalidomide, survived while Gingrich’s Contract for American mostly fell flat. In fact Gingrich, has flashed like a ragged meteor trailing a dust cloud in the firmament, but if you examine his careers, his real accomplishments are rather minor. For Gingrich is a destroyer, not a builder.

Just four years into his tenure, Gingrich lost the speakership and his House seat after he forced a shutdown of the government ostensibly in a budget clash with then President Clinton. But according to a close ally, Gingrich was angry that he had been given a back seat on Clinton’s Air Force One.

In any event, the shutdown helped Democrats win seats in the House and contributed to Clinton’s re-election in 1996. Gingrich was fined for repeated ethics violations, the first speaker so punished, and in 1998 he resigned and his revolution went with him.

Now, with Barack Obama in the White House, Newt Gingrich has done little that might be called constructive. He has made a career out of saying almost anything to destroy the presidency and the federal government, which pays him a pension. In 1995 after the Oklahoma City federal building was bombed, I confronted Gingrich in Atlanta with a question: Might his constant anti-federal government rhetoric have contributed to the mindset of the bombers. I don’t remember his outraged denials, but he protested too much.

Personally, Gingrich has what might be called a checkered past and present. He boasted to me one day that he was a Vietnam War draft dodger. He divorced his first wife, while she was ill with cancer. And left his second wife, Marianne, for a blonde aide. Callista, his third wife.

Despite his obvious personality flaws, he is given an audience if not credibility. Some friends say this one-time history professor has gone too far, off the deep end. His trademark is speaking for the sake of shock and awe, saying almost anything no matter how foul and far out to get attention.

It’s the advice he gave Republicans long ago. Use incendiary language, he urged. And in the past months he has followed and often led the right-wing nuts lower and lower into the political depths, the underworld. And why not? That’s where Satan lives.

As for the saint, I’m pleased to report that Dr. Kelsey, who retired six years ago at age 90, has just received the first “Kelsey award” for outstanding service to her agency and the American people.

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Johna Ferguson: Part 2 First and Last Boat Ride

Reflections: On the Constitution

SaulFriedman75x75 Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the twice-monthly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. His other column, Gray Matters, formerly published in Newsday, appears each Saturday.

Category_bug_reflections There was a time when I was reporting on Congress, that I admired, respected and even liked some of the most stalwart conservatives in the Senate. But that was before the conservatives of the Republican Party metamorphosed into a rancid rabble of radicals who seek to cripple a president, the federal government and the Constitution of the United States.

The lawmakers to whom I refer were conservatives in the classic, dictionary definition of the word. They favored “traditional views and values, tending to oppose change...to conserve; disposed to preserve existing conditions, institutions; or restore traditional ones and to limit change.”

According to Wikipedia, the views of Edmund Burke, the philosophical patron saint of traditional conservatives, were

“a mixture of liberal and conservative. He supported the American revolution but abhorred the violence of the French revolution. He accepted the [then] liberal ideals of private property and the economics of Adam Smith...but believed that capitalism should be subordinate to the medieval social tradition...that the business class should be subordinate to the aristocracy.”

American conservatism, as I knew it in my reporting days, was based on the ideas of Burke and included respect for traditional institutions and public service along with the flexibility that life and politics demand and, yes, elements of liberalism and electoral pragmatism.

Although many of us may have disagreed with them, conservatives were, for the most part, people of principle who took their jobs seriously and believed in government. And with the National Review founder William F. Buckley setting the tone, conservatism had some intellectual heft.

With these criteria, I don’t believe today’s right-wing radicals should be called conservatives. They are know-nothing bullies.

One of my conservative heroes was Senator Sam Ervin, a North Carolina Democrat and former justice of that state’s Supreme Court. This generation might remember him best as the grumpy, drawling chairman of the select Senate committee that investigated Watergate. But he also took on the demagogic anti-communism of Senator Joe McCarthy, and he uncovered the U.S. Army’s domestic spying program called COINTEL. Today’s Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) was one of its results.

Ervin headed the Judiciary subcommittee on Constitutional Rights. And while he was a segregationist who opposed, as unconstitutional, the Earl Warren court’s 1954 school desegregation decision, there was no greater champion of civil liberties and the Constitution. He later changed his mind about the Supreme Court’s decision, but continued to oppose forced desegregation as excessive federal power.

But I came to know him in my first year on Capitol Hill, in 1966, when the segregationists of both parties sought constitutional amendments to set aside the court decisions on school desegregation and to make prayer compulsory in the public schools.

Indeed, in the wake of the court decisions and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, there was a great clamor for a constitutional convention, which Ervin saw as a great danger if, for example, the First and Fifth amendments were put to a popularity test.

Ervin was able to shut down the call for a convention because of his knowledge of the law and the Constitution, and because he was respected by his colleagues as an even-keeled, independent, conservative. He was “Mr. Constitution.”

That historic 1964 Civil Rights Act could not have passed without the crucial help of the Senate Minority Leader, conservative Republican Everett McKinley Dirksen, of Illinois, who had served in the House of Representatives from 1933-49, before coming to the Senate in 1951.

And during his tenure as leader, Dirksen served another, pragmatic conservative Republican, President Eisenhower, and he was leader of the loyal opposition, supporting the Vietnam War when Lyndon Johnson was president. But his defining moment came on June 10, 1964, when all 100 Senators were present and the longest filibuster in the chamber’s history was droning on.

In those days it took 66 votes to break a filibuster, and the floor had been held for 83 days by the southern segregationists led by Republican Strom Thurmond of South Carolina. A friend once asked his South Carolina colleague, Olin D. Johnston, a conservative Democrat, what moved Thurmond. He replied, “The trouble with ol’ Strom is he really believes that s—t.”

Late that morning, Dirksen rose to address the Senate. He had been working long hours helping to craft the bill with the help of the Johnson White House, fellow Republican Senator Thomas Kuchel of California and the Democratic leadership. He spoke 15 minutes. His florid style was gone and his voice was tired as he spoke:

“There are many reasons why cloture should be invoked and a good civil rights measure enacted. It is said on the night he died, Victor Hugo wrote in his diary, substantially this sentiment, ‘Stronger than all the armies is an idea whose time has come.’ The time has come for equality of opportunity in sharing of government, in education and in employment. It must not be stayed or denied.”

An hour later, the 67th vote was cast and the filibuster was broken with the help of Republicans. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed the Senate by a vote of 73-27 and was signed a month later. With Dirksen’s help, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, broke the back of southern intransigence.

Unfortunately, as Johnson had predicted, Richard Nixon’s 1968 “southern strategy” campaign led the Republican Party down a dark path from which it has not returned.

One of the “nay” votes against cloture and the bill came from Senator Barry Goldwater, who held that the federal government was intruding into the rights of the states and interfering with the rights of private businesses to serve whom they wished. That position cost him millions of votes that year when he was overwhelmingly defeated for the presidency by Lyndon Johnson.

But the conservative movement rose out of the ashes and Goldwater was ”Mr. Conservative.” His partner and benefactor in that rise was Ronald Reagan who made a stirring, nationally televised speech, “A Time For Choosing,” on Goldwater’s behalf. Even among the far right, their conservative credentials cannot be challenged.

Yet Goldwater, who collected Kachina dolls and was a champion of American Indian rights, was also a supporter of abortion rights. He called himself a libertarian and in 1989, said the Republican Party had been taken over by a “bunch of kooks.” In a 1994 interview with the Washington Post, Goldwater said,

“When you say ‘radical right’ today, I think of moneymaking ventures by fellows like Pat Robertson and others who are trying to take the Republican Party and make a religious organization out of it. If that ever happens, kiss politics goodbye.”

A former officer in the Air Force, Goldwater was a strong defender of the military but criticized its ban on homosexuals. “You don’t have to be straight in the military; you just have to be able to shoot straight.” He told right-wingers:

“Do not associate my name with anything you do. You are extremists and you’ve hurt the Republican Party much more than Democrats have.”

In 1996, he told fellow Republican, Bob Dole, who had been trashed by the elder George Bush, “We’re the new liberals of the Republican Party. Can you imagine that?”

That year Goldwater, to the dismay of the Christian right, endorsed an Arizona initiative to legalize medical marihuana. As the Senate Republican leader Dole was another principled conservative who ran afoul of the right-wing, perhaps because he joined Senator Ted Kennedy in sponsoring legislation to provide for elementary school lunches for low-income American students.

There were other staunch conservatives who made the Senate work:

• Senator Robert A. Taft, of Ohio, who died before my time covering the Senate, was “Mr. Republican,” a powerful “isolationist,” an opponent of the New Deal and Franklin Roosevelt’s effort to go to war against the Nazis. But he was the son of a trust-buster, William Howard Taft and came to support Social Security, unemployment insurance, strict banking regulation and, after the war, the United Nations.

• Democrat Richard Russell of Georgia, a segregationist to the end, who nevertheless helped Lyndon Johnson become the Majority leader.

• Democrat Robert Byrd, a former member of the Ku Klux Klan, who defeated Ted Kennedy for a leadership post and became a fervent fighter against the growth of executive power to engage in wars.

• Republican Robert P. Griffin, of Michigan, who I knew, helped defeat Richard Nixon’s worst Supreme Court nominees, Clement Haynesworth and Harold Carswell, as well as Johnson’s attempt to make a political crony, Abe Fortas, the Chief Justice.

• Another staunch conservative Republican, Roman Hruska, defended Carswell, but contributed to his defeat by saying that even the mediocre need “a little representation.”

Although not in the Senate even Ronald Reagan, in partnership with then Senate leader Robert Dole, tempered his conservatism as he grew in office. A year after his sweeping tax cuts, one-third across the board, Reagan thought better of the growing federal deficit and reluctantly approved record tax increases.

After denouncing Social Security for years and trying to make it voluntary, Reagan presided over the rescue of Social Security in 1983 that has built its $2.6 trillion trust fund. And after declaring the then-Soviet Union the “evil empire,” his peacemaking and arms agreements with Moscow from 1986-88, helped end the cold war.

After his presidency, Reagan, who once hoped the United Nations would leave the U.S., became a champion of the United Nations and called for a humanitarian “army of conscience” to rescue the beleaguered people of Africa.

These conservatives were not like those radicals of today, pouncing on every opportunity to change the Constitution. Reagan was opposed to abortion, but did not press for legislation or a constitutional amendment to ban it. And as far as I know, after Ervin put the kibosh on the proposal for a constitutional convention, the drive to change the Constitution and the Bill of Rights has abated – until now.

And it’s more than ironic that people who call themselves “conservatives” and “strict constructionists” are seeking to end rather than “conserve” and “preserve” fundamental liberties.

Consider the differences between those traditional and flexible conservatives and the lockstep Senate Republicans under leader Mitch McConnell who are setting new records for filibustering to block virtually every presidential initiative and nomination.

Almost as one, they deny the science of climate change; oppose all abortions, even when rape or incest is involved; would cut taxes for the wealthy and deny that will increase the deficit; complain that unemployment insurance will keep the jobless from working; would repeal health reforms as a federal takeover.

Intellectual? Try Republican Senator Lindsay Graham, (SC), testing Supreme Court nominee Elana Kagan’s faith by asking her where she was on Christmas. Her glorious put down: “Like all good Jews I was probably at a Chinese restaurant.” Graham was one of the few Republicans who voted to confirm her.

Ben Evans, writing for The Huffington Post, counts 42 proposed constitutional amendments filed in this congressional session by the most right wing members. (In fairness, Democratic Representative Jesse Jackson, Jr., of Illinois, has proposed a package of 27 amendments none of which would repeal any part of the Constitution, but would enhance voting rights and deal with congressional succession in a natural disaster.)

The Republican proposals, however, would limit freedoms as defined by Supreme Court decisions. They include:

• a flag desecration amendment, although the courts have said such acts pf protest are protected by the freedom of speech guaranteed by the First Amendment

• an amendment to require a balanced budget, which would stunt all federal government growth and give the nation the problems the states are having because most are required to balance their budgets

• an amendment to require a super majority in Congress (two-thirds) to raise taxes

• a parental rights amendment giving parents the right to raise their children as they see fit

• a “human life” amendment, banning abortion

• a federal marriage amendment banning same sex marriages

• repeal of the 17th Amendment (1913) requiring that senators be elected rather than appointed

• an amendment, proposed by Tea Party activists, to repeal the 16th Amendment (1913) which gives Congress the right to levy taxes and spend money

• an amendment prohibiting government ownership of private businesses (as in the bank and automobile manufacturers bailouts)

• an amendment to limit the “commerce clause,” which from earliest days has given the federal government power to regulate “interstate commerce,” meaning the economy (as in the health reform requirement to have medical insurance)

• and an effort, supported by Republican leaders, who have long abandoned Lincoln’s legacy, to repeal parts of the 14th Amendment (1868) which, among other things, gave former slaves American citizenship to counter the notorious Dred Scott case in which the Supreme Court ruled that slaves were chattel and not persons

That current drive to repeal the 14th Amendment (one of three passed during post Civil War Reconstruction to expand American freedoms) move was prompted by hostility towards undocumented immigrants whose children born in the U.S. automatically become citizens (although their parents do not.)

This hostility was carried to ridiculous extremes by a Texas nut congressman who claimed the 14th Amendment would allow women to come to America to have “terrorist babies,” who would become citizens so they could one day attack America. The pity of this idiocy is that it is aided and abetted by the current Republican leaders and the most active and outspoken right-wingers.

The 14th amendment, if you don’t have a copy, also includes: “nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty or property, without due process of law.”

That has become the basis of the school desegregation decision, women’s rights, the right of an accused to have a lawyer and countless other advances in individual liberties. Once it is opened for change, can we trust these hard-shell Republican radicals to leave the “due process clause” alone?

Constitutional historian Richard Beeman writes:

“Perhaps the most significant and far-reaching amendment to the Constitution, the 14th Amendment,” is viewed by many scholars and jurists as the provision of the Constitution that has brought the principles enunciated in the preamble of the Declaration of Independence into the realm of constitutional law - life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Friko: The Briefcase

REFECTIONS: On Jobs and the CCC

SaulFriedman75x75 Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the twice-monthly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. His other column, Gray Matters, formerly published in Newsday, appears each Saturday.

Category_bug_reflections Judging by his record of job creation, which has been rather benign during the worst employment drought since the Great Depression, it should be clear by now that Barack Obama is no Franklin Roosevelt. Although he admires the Roosevelt legacy, he seems to have learned too little from history.

But it doesn’t have to be this way, if he followed up on what he’s accomplished so far.

To his credit, Obama began his presidency by keeping a promise he made the month before he took office when he proposed the elements of his economic recovery program which included public works. As he said, “We need action – and action now.”

He said he would invest record amounts of money, about $700 billion  in a vast infrastructure program, including work on schools, sewer systems, mass transit, dams and public utilities.

Toward those ends, Obama shoved through the Congress, with no help from Republicans, the $784 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, along with $170 billion for an economic stimulus (less than what he wanted), $3 billion for the popular “cash for clunkers,” $100 billion to refinance defaulting mortgages and $90 billion in emergency unemployment insurance.

The outgoing Bush administration contributed $600 billion for the Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP), under which the government bought shaky assets from banks.

In addition, the Federal Reserve and the U.S. Treasury invested or loaned billions (much of which has been paid back with interest) to bail out giant banks and two of the big three auto manufacturers. In spite of almost unanimous Republican opposition, the states lined up to get their share of stimulus money after several vowed that they would take nothing from the federal government.

The latest flip-flopper is Governor Mark Sanford of South Carolina who was moved to change his position in the face of a ten percent unemployment rate in his state.

Despite criticism of TARP and the assorted bailouts, two eminent economists, Mark Zandi, chief economist with Moody’s Economy and a former adviser to Sen. John McCain, and Princeton’s Alan Blinder, former vice-president of the Federal Reserve Board, pronounced the Obama programs successful in averting “what could have been called Great Depression 2.0.”

In their 23-page paper entitled, How The Great Recession Was Brought To An End, they note that

“...the government’s response (which began in the last days of the Bush administration) to the financial crisis and ensuing Great Recession included some of the most aggressive fiscal and monetary policies in history...Yet almost every one of these policies remain controversial...with critics calling them misguided, ineffective or both.”

But, they added,

“We estimate that without the government’s response the GDP (Gross Domestic Product) in 2010 would be about 11.5 percent lower, payroll employment would be less than 8.5 million jobs and the nation would now be experiencing deflation.”

Despite the persistently high unemployment rate, they claim the fiscal stimulus alone raised this year’s GDP to 3.4 percent and 2.7 million jobs were saved or added. But the latest economic news, including a lower GDP and deeper unemployment, accompanied by spreading poverty among working and middle class families, has blemished their optimism.

Part of the problem: Of the $784 billion in the recovery act, more than $266 billion has not yet been spent and the deaf and dumb Republicans want that amount suspended and used to reduce the deficit. The administration says 80 percent of the projects are under contract and another $50 billion are in the process of being awarded.

Nevertheless, cities are turning out street lights and replacing paved roads with gravel to save money. The fact is that the recovery act and the inadequate stimulus have yet to put much of a dent in the unemployment rate, which is far above the official rate of 9.5 percent.

As Bob Herbert reported in The New York Times, the reason the rate is not higher is because 181,000 workers left the labor force this summer. One economist, Charles McMillion, who analyzes employment trends. told him that

“...over the past three months 1,155,000 unemployed people dropped out of the active labor force and were not counted as unemployed. Even ignoring population growth, if these unemployed had not dropped out of the labor force...the official unemployment rate would have risen from 9.9 percent in April to 10.2 percent in July.

“When you combine the long term unemployed with those who are dropping out and those who are working part time because they can’t find anything else. It is just far beyond anything we’ve seen..since the 1930s.”

Yet, said Herbert, Washington, including the president, who says, “I feel your pain,”is not doing much about the crisis.

“With 14.6 million officially jobless, and 5.9 million who have stopped looking but say they want a job. And 8.5 million who are working part time...you end up with 30 million Americans who cannot find the work they want and desperately need...There are now 3.4 million fewer private sector jobs than there were a decade ago. In the last ten years, we’ve seen the worst job creation record since 1928-1938.”

What can be done? How about following the advice of a couple of Nobel Prize winning economists, Joseph Stiglitz and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman? Stiglitz, former chief economist for the World Bank told Bloomberg TV that the administration’s stimulus and public works effort were

“...a big gamble and it doesn’t look like it’s paying off. The recovery is so weak that it’s not strong enough to generate new jobs for the new entrants in the labor force, let alone to find jobs for the 15 million who would like to get a job, but can’t find one.”

One reason the recovery act has been slow in creating jobs is that many of the projects and contracts must go through the slow process of being approved by state and local jurisdictions and competing labor unions. That’s why Stiglitz, Krugman, former Labor Secretary Robert Reich and Blinder have called for the resurrection of New Deal-style job creation programs like the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and, for younger men and women trying to enter the labor force who need to do useful work, the once popular Civilian Conservation Corps.

Reich noted that the U.S. already has a “giant jobs program,” the thousands of men and women in the military, sapping valuable taxpayer funds that are justified as necessary for national security, when a nation with so many jobless is economically insecure. Noting the U.S. had a National Defense Education Act during the Eisenhower presidency, Reich said,

“Maybe this is the way to convince Republicans to spend more federal dollars putting Americans back and working on things we genuinely need: call it the National Defense Full Employment Act.”

When the ’s Ezra Klein asked Blinder what needs to be done to give a blood transfusion to the anemic recovery, Blinder said,

“I would do two things, both aimed at jobs. I would do the so-called new jobs tax credit on a much bigger and better scale than the HIRE Act, which was a baby step. The second thing I would do is a WPA-like program of direct, public hiring. People could work in parks in maintenance, the many paper-shuffling jobs in government.”

Actually, the WPA and CCC did a lot more than that. Here’s what I wrote months ago when Obama offered what became too little:

“The WPA, born in 1935 at an initial cost of $4.8 billion, was at the time, the largest “relief” program in American history (now it’s called “stimulus”). By 1941, when spending on the coming war pulled America out of the lingering slump, WPA had cost $11.4 billion and put eight million men and women to work building 1,634 public schools, 105 airports, 3,000 tennis courts, 5,800 libraries, 3,300 storage dams, hundreds of miles of roads, sewer lines.

“At the same time the CCC built roads through national and state parks, fire towers, and scores of campgrounds, many of which are in use today.

“I doubt if George Bush even suspected that his weekend retreat, Camp David, which Franklin Roosevelt called Shangri-la, was built by the WPA and CCC as a recreation area in the Catoctin Mountains of Maryland. Do baseball fans know that WPA workers built Doubleday Field, in Cooperstown, New York in 1939 to mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of America’s pastime on that hallowed ground?

“The architecturally unique bridges of the Merritt Parkway in Connecticut were built by the WPA. Not until 1937 did New York City get an airport, La Guardia Field (named after the city’s New Deal era mayor) with its beautiful art-deco main terminal, all built by WPA labor.

“The WPA, I should add, hired women, although the agency’s boss, Harry Hopkins, frowned on giving work to both a husband and a wife and leaving children unattended. About 15 percent of the workers were in the Women’s Division and they received equal pay, which was the local prevailing wage, from $19 to $94 a month for a maximum of 30 hours of work each week.

“The WPA also provided jobs for 350,000 blacks, and helped dent some color barriers. And the WPA’s Education Division, gave work to teachers who taught reading to thousands of illiterate blacks and whites.”

But the WPA, which was ridiculed by Republicans (naturally) as a make-work program (and nothing is wrong with make-work when there are no other jobs), was paired with the CCC in putting Americans in useful jobs. The genius of the CCC is that it concentrated on young men 18 to 24 (later 18-28), many of whom were roaming the country like hoboes, to give them work that needed doing, providing them the discipline of a military-like structure and seeing to it that they sent part of their wages to their struggling families at home.

As New York State’s governor, Roosevelt, an ardent conservationist, had run a similar program. But barely three weeks into his presidency, on March 21, 1933, he told the Congress.

“I propose to create a civilian conservation corps to be used in simple work, not interfering with normal employment, and confining itself to forestry, the prevention of soil erosion, flood control and similar projects. I call your attention to the fact that this type of work is of definite, practical value, not only through the prevention of great financial loss, but also as a means of creating future national wealth.”

Today, I suppose the Republican right (e.g., Rep Michele Bachmann of Minnesota) would accuse Obama of trying to put America’s youth into concentration camps. But the law that created the CCC, for Emergency Conservation Work, was passed ten days after Roosevelt proposed it. And he promised it “would give 250,000 young men meals, housing, uniforms and small wages for working on national forests and other government properties.”

Those numbers grew as the depression deepened.

If you travel to a national forest, you’ll notice that many of the fire watch towers were built by the CCC. My late brother-in-law and a close friend left their Depression-weary urban homes for service in the CCC. But among the more prominent alumni were Hyman Rickover, who became a four-star admiral and the father of the nuclear submarine fleet; actors Raymond Burr, Robert Mitchum and Walter Matthau; baseball greats Stan Musial and Red Schoendienst and test pilot Chuck Yeager.

Volunteers came from every state, including the then territories of Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

According to Wikipedia, the CCC became the most popular New Deal program among the public, eventually providing jobs for 3 million men, most of them from families on relief. Then-Interior Secretary Harold Ickes insisted that black youth were included and 200,000 signed up, although they were segregated.

During its life, from 1933 to 1942, CCC volunteers planted nearly 3 billion trees to help reforest America, constructed more than 800 parks nationwide, most of which became state parks, and a network of thousands of miles of roads in forests and rural lands.

The Indian Division of the CCC built schools and operated extensive road building projects on Indian lands. Crews built dams, sowed grass to stop erosion. In addition, it trained men to be carpenters, truck rivers, radio operators, mechanics and stock raisers. About 24,000 of the 85,000 Indian enrollees later served in the military and 40,000 left the reservations for war jobs in the cities.

What was it about the Roosevelt presidency that enabled the passage and creation of the WPA, the PWA, the CCC, not to mention regulatory agencies (the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp, FDIC, the Securities Exchange Commission, SEC, the Federal Trade Commission, FTC) and laws, The Glass-Stegall Banking Act?

The Obama presidency, which promise a revival of Rooseveltian hope, has steadily weakened with compromise virtually every New Deal era effort to deal with funny money Wall Street and financial shenanigans. It’s true that Obama has confronted highly partisan and an ideologically extremist Republican Party, but has he fought them?

Roosevelt, who ran in 1932 on a promise to balance the budget, abandoned that vow when faced with the misery and crises of the Great Depression. Obama has endorsed a right-wing budget-cutting deficit commission, which wants to cut Social Security benefits, among other federal programs.

Roosevelt said he welcomed the opposition from what he called the “economic royalists” whose business-loving Republican Party had run the country for more than a dozen years with Harding, Coolidge and Hoover. Roosevelt, with the courage of his convictions and prodding from Eleanor, did not seek bipartisanship but fought the Republicans and their banker allies.

In the vernacular, Roosevelt stayed with the voters who brung him to the presidency. In 1934, the people supported him, winning nine seats each for Democrats in the House and Senate, which happens rarely for the party in power. But even as the Depression got worse, the voters responded to FDR’s partisanship and set the stage for the best of the New Deal that was to come.

Surely there’s a lesson in this for today. Here is part of another Bob Herbert column:

“The problem with the U.S. economy today, as it was during the Great Depression, is the absence of sufficient demand for goods and services. Consumers, struggling with sky-high unemployment and staggering debt loads, are tapped out. The economy cannot be made healthy again, and there is no chance of doing anything substantial about budget deficits, as long as so many millions of people are left with essentially no purchasing power. Jobs are the only real answer.

“President Obama missed his opportunity early last year to rally the public behind a call for shared sacrifice and a great national mission to rebuild the United States in a way that would create employment for millions and establish a gleaming new industrial platform for the great advances of the 21st century.

“It would have taken fire and imagination, but the public was poised to respond to bold leadership. If the Republicans had balked, and they would have, the president had the option of taking his case to the people, as Truman did in his great underdog campaign of 1948.

“During the Depression, Franklin Roosevelt explained to the public the difference between wasteful spending and sound government investments. 'You cannot borrow your way out of debt,' he said, 'but you can invest your way into a sounder future.'”

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Olga Hebert: Back-to-School Shoes

REFLECTIONS: On Recent History

SaulFriedman75x75 Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the twice-monthly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. His other column, Gray Matters, formerly published in Newsday, appears each Saturday.

Category_bug_reflections This is known as backing into a column, taking the long way round to say what I want to say. For I need to clear up some relatively recent history lessons that seem to be clogging the American memory, even that of our president and his policymakers who I believe are making some terrible mistakes, perhaps because they have too little hindsight.

It’s a story about how enemies became friends and vice versa, and why we’re in endless wars of someone else’s choosing, and a dangerous standoff with a nation that represents one of the oldest civilizations on earth.

Even as a teenager on the streets of Brooklyn, I was deeply interested in foreign affairs. I lived in a polyglot, mostly Jewish neighborhood with its share of socialists, communists, liberals, Trotskyites, a few misguided Republicans and ardent unionists who worked in the garment trades.

Like the adults, who argued politics on the nearby boardwalk, we kids gathered on the streets to talk about what was going on in the world. We knew quite a lot, for the world was in the midst of a slow motion explosion towards total war.

We had listened to the reports of the Japanese rape of Nanking in the Thirties. We had relatives who had gone off to fight for the Loyalists and against the Nazis in Spain 1937. We heard what the Nazis were doing to Jews. We argued over the 1939 Soviet-German non-aggression pact that made war inevitable.

Some Soviet sympathizers among us said the Russians were merely protecting themselves for the inevitable showdown with Hitler. In our own way, my friends, Bobby, Irwin, Howie and I were quite sophisticated. Several of them later went to fight in World War II and Korea.

Our elementary and high schools’ civic classes kept us up on the progress of the European war and at our graduation from P.S. 225, we sang the songs of the American military (Off We Go Into The Wild Blue Yonder, Anchors Aweigh, The Caissons Go Rolling Along, along with the British, French, Soviet and Chinese national anthems.)

As I think I’ve related, I was in high school when the United States joined the Soviets, the British and French to fight the Germans and Japanese. But for Jews, Germany was the real enemy. When I wasn’t out picking up and delivering clothes, I followed the war in Europe on the map my friend Itzik, the presser, had pinned to the wall at the Manhattan Beach tailors Sinowitz & Lesser where we worked.

Years later, after a couple of years in the Army during the Korean War, I kept my nose into foreign affairs as a young reporter for the Houston Chronicle, interviewing such luminaries as the then-chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, J. William Fulbright, William Buckley and Socialist leader Norman Thomas.

I got an even more impressive education in foreign and national security affairs during my year as a Nieman fellow at Harvard in 1962-3, where I studied with Henry Kissinger who became Secretary of State and National Security adviser under Richard Nixon, and with Jerry Ford and Mort Halperin who was to join the Clinton administration and a host of academics who taught and wrote about the Cold War era Soviet Union, the history of its communist party, the rise of Mao Tse Tung and the leaders of Africa struggling to emerge from colonialism.

I was privileged to attend a luncheon with Soviet journalists in the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis. They were as frightened as we were at the possibility of nuclear war.

But the most cogent lesson for today came from Professor Stanley Hoffman who taught a course entitled “War,” which surveyed man’s greatest folly from the Peloponnesian War, between Athens and Sparta (431-404 BCE) to Korea. We read Pericles’ famous funeral oration, which has been compared to the Gettsysburg Address, which mourned the Athenian dead but cautioned that war should not be so loved as to consume the society and democracy that was ancient Athens.

I have recounted my own knowledge so that I can add some context to three conflicts of today that threaten to consume our democracy.

Much of our democratic ways have already disappeared. Does anyone remember the background of our dangerous standoff with Iran, nee Persia? In 1953, the United States was frightened that democracy had broken out in Iran, which is rich in oil and has a long border with our then arch enemy, the Soviet Union, which was friendly with Iran.

The popularly elected Prime Minister, Mohammed Mossaddeq, was not exactly pro-Soviet but he was a secular nationalist, backed by communists. But the Iranian parliament committed the sin of nationalizing the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, 85 percent of whose profits went to the British. The U.S. could not abide that in a country bordering on and friendly with our enemy.

Mossaddeq visited Washington and assured the U.S. that the oil dispute could be settled. He got support from the Truman administration. But with the Cold War at its height and the Korean War raging, Dwight Eisenhower’s administration, through the CIA operating out of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, set about to destabilize the Mossaddeq government and succeeded in staging a coup and jailing the prime minister.

In 2000, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called it a “setback for democratic government.” But here was another case in which the U.S. was not prepared to live with democratic government. (Think of Chile and Salvador Allende).

The U.S. promptly installed the former monarch, the Shah, a thoroughly corrupt but westernized despot who took billions from Washington, including arms, to live in a lavish life style while he cracked down on the fundamentalist clergy and the youth.

On New Year’s Day, 1978, Jimmy Carter toasted the Shah’s “brilliant leadership” And when the Shah, who was emotionally fragile, became terminally ill, Carter invited him to the U.S. for treatment.

That, as much as anything set off the 1979 revolution in the streets of Iran which brought the fundamentalist clergy under Ayatollah Khomeini back to Iran from exile in France to rule Iran as a theocracy.

It was not surprising when, later that year, the young revolutionaries who remembered 1953 and helped oust the Shah, attacked the hated U.S. Embassy and took 444 hostages with one aim - to embarrass the United States and kill the presidency of Jimmy Carter. The crisis ended, as you know, the moment Ronald Reagan was sworn in. But the U.S. wasn’t through punishing Iran, its former friend.

In 1980, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq invaded Iran and after the initial success of the invasion, Iran repulsed the Iraqis and the two nations settled down to a devastating and bloody eight year conflict. But because Iran had been so hostile to the U.S., and it bordered the Soviet Union and had all that oil, the Reagan administration recognized Iraq in 1984. The Soviets had supported a U.N. cease-fire demand and cut off aid to both countries. But the U.S. defied the U.N and took side - against Iran.

I have a picture dated December 20, 1983, when special U.S. envoy Donald Rumsfeld met with Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and promised American support for Iraq. More than that, the U.S. gave Hussein billions in economic aid, tactical and intelligence support and some weapons of mass destruction - the chemical agents, anthrax, West Nile fever, botulism - which was used against Iraqi Kurds. That aid continued through 1992.

That cozy relationship helped give Saddam Hussein the mistaken impression that his invasion of Kuwait could go unchallenged. Indeed, the U.S. representative in Baghdad, April Glaspie, was criticized because she had not warned Iraq strongly enough to stop Hussein's threatened takeover of the oil fields of Kuwait.

The elder George Bush hesitated before he was goaded by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to show some spine. I was covering this story when Secretary of State James Baker formed the coalition, including key Arab states, to push Iraq out of Kuwait. He and the elder Bush kept their promise to the coalition by pulling away from Baghdad and leaving Saddam Hussein in power once Kuwait was saved.

Soon, our former friend, Iraq, became our convenient enemy, although it did nothing to threaten the U.S. But it enabled Bush’s prodigal son to complete his father’s war, against the advice of Baker and other advisors to Bush I.

The only weapons of mass destruction Iraq had were those the U.S. gave it. But since 2003, the folly of the war against a former friend has cost more than 5,000 American lives, 31,000 wounded, an estimated $2 trillion and countless Iraqi dead and maimed. And it’s still not over.

But the war in Iraq was of a piece and a sequel with the long war we have fought in Afghanistan, for both have their roots in the Cold War. Afghanistan, another land that borders the Soviet Union, had been on more or less friendly relations with the Russians since 1920. The pro-Soviet regime in Kabul rankled the U.S., but it was a period of stability in Afghanistan with women achieving a measure of western style freedom. But as in Iran and Iraq, the fundamentalist Muslims of the mujahadeen, which became the Taliban, resisted this westernization – with help from Robert Gates’s CIA.

When the Kabul regime and its People’s Democratic Party were threatened, the Soviets (provoked by the U.S.) invaded in 1979. Jimmy Carter ordered the U.S. to help the mujahadeen which were romanticized by American correspondents.

You know the rest. The future Taliban, was supplied with Stinger missiles by the U.S. and ultimately the Soviets were forced to withdraw in 1989, leaving the Democratic forces there with no defenses against the Taliban.

In the wake of the Soviet withdrawal, which was celebrated by the U.S., the Taliban gave Afghanistan a taste of 12th century government, re-enslaving women, wiping out democratic values and the best of Afghanistan’s past glories. In the vacuum, Osama Ben Laden was free to do his dirty work and killed one of his rivals.

POST 9/11
Then came 9/11 and the U.S. reaction was like an irrational spasm, a great temper tantrum. Instead of treating it as an horrible crime, the U.S. declared war on a nation. Instead of using our intelligence sources to go after the criminal perpetrators, the richest nation on earth sent bombs and missiles against the poorest of nations and its innocents. We and they are still dying - for no reason.

Because part of the band of jihadist guerrillas, which the U.S. had sponsored, lived in Afghanistan, Americans were eager to bomb that misbegotten country “back to the stone age,” as if it weren’t already there.

And instead of treating the 9/11 attack as a terrible part of the war against American policy, the U.S. launched this endless war on terrorism which has consumed parts of our democratic traditions as well as our treasure and countless lives. By conservative estimates, the actual cost of the wars on terrorism since 2001 is more than $1.2 trillion; Iraq, $736 billion; Afghanistan, $286 billion - and still counting.

Even now, Dan Froomkin reports in the Huffington Post, the U.S., with 137,000 troops in Afghanistan, intends to remain there for at least another four years in spite of mounting evidence that Afghanistan cannot be saved from itself. In the past, the Soviets left Afghanistan, the British left Afghanistan when it was no longer tenable, and the French left Algeria. We have lost 1,200 men and women to the Taliban and casualties mount higher every month, along with suicides.

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote on July 29,

“The war in Afghanistan will consume more money this year than we spent on the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Civil War and the Spanish-American War–combined....The war on terror, including Iraq and Afghanistan has been, by far, the costliest war in American history aside from World War II...

“One legacy of the 9/11 attacks was a distortion of American policy...Under Mr. Obama, we are now spending more money on the military, adjusting for inflation, than in the peak of the Cold War, Vietnam War or Korean War.

“Our battle fleet is larger than the next 13 navies combined...The military has more people in its marching bands than the State Department has diplomats. The intelligence apparatus is so bloated that, according to the Washington Post, the number of people with ‘top secret’ clearance is 1.5 times the population of the District of Columbia.”

With so many people gathering information on millions of us, including our phone calls and e-mails, and with so many people in uniform here and throughout the world, Barack Obama’s war on terrorism without end, despite his best intentions, may have become a greater danger to American democracy than the plotting of any terrorist.

Remember Pericles: “What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others.”

Or perhaps the last Rubaiyat quatrain of the great Persian poet, mathematician and astronomer, Omar Khayyam (1048-1131), would be appropriate:

The Moving Finger writes: and having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a line
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Ms. Sue Dough Nym: A New Old Me

REFLECTIONS: On Social Security

SaulFriedman75x75 Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the twice-monthly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. His other column, Gray Matters, formerly published in Newsday, appears each Saturday.

Category_bug_reflections We thought Social Security was safe when Barack Obama was elected. He had opposed George Bush’s attempt to turn the program into millions of 401(k)s subject to the whims of the stock market.

And Obama pledged to keep and preserve Social Security as it is, a defined benefit pension/insurance plan that pays $650 billion to 53 million older Americans, the disabled and the surviving spouses and children of beneficiaries.

But Obama has fallen for the cut-the-deficit frenzy, appointing a commission run by banker Erskine Bowles and right-wing, former Wyoming senator Alan Simpson, that began its work by attacking and talking about cuts in Social Security’s benefits.

The president, who says he is still hostile to such cuts and that its long-term financial problems are easily fixed, adds ominously that “everything is on the table.”

That makes me nervous because Obama compromises too much with sworn enemies of Social Security, so perhaps he, as much as the rest of us, needs a primer on the crown jewel of the American moral imperative towards its older population.

How It Works
Social Security is about to celebrate its 75th year and still too many people don’t know much about it. It has lasted through wars and recession, longer than many blue chip corporations. Yet the reasons for its abiding strength are not universally understood.

For example, I’ll wager that not many of us realize that Social Security’s basic benefit – Old-Age

Survivors and Disability Insurance (OASDI) - was designed to replace, on average, about 40 percent of a worker’s final salary. Now, 75 years later, give or take one or two percent, that average replacement rate remains about the same.

But more than that, Social Security was designed to be progressive, which means lower-salaried workers can count on pensions replacing a larger portion of their wages than more affluent persons. To oversimplify, the low-wage waitress, who earned, say, $15,000 a year through most of her working life, can live fairly comfortably on a 40 percent replacement rate.

For a person earning $200,000 a year, Social Security’s benefits are relatively small, but not inconsequential, for the checks will be available no matter the changes in even an affluent beneficiary’s situation during retirement.

There should be no means test excluding the rich from Social Security; the sudden disappearance of the value of 401(k)s, belonging to Enron retirees is a case in point.

Redistribution of Income
It is true, as the experts say, that Social Security was designed to redistribute income from the more affluent wage earners to the lower income workers. That, of course, is the essence of progressivity and one large reason the program has been so successful and beloved. It’s worth knowing the details.

To begin with, Social Security consists of the old age benefit, (35 million workers and dependents), disability insurance (9 million), and survivors’ insurance (6 million, mostly children).

According to the Urban Institute, the Social Security programs redistribute income in five major ways:

  1. From richer workers to poorer workers through a progressive benefit formula.
  2. From shorter lived groups (blacks, men and the less skilled and educated) to longer-lived groups (women and the better educated white collar workers).
  3. From single persons to married couples through survivor benefits paid to spouses and children who don’t need to make further contributions.
  4. From the healthy to the disabled through disability payments for persons who qualify.
  5. And from later generations to earlier generations.

Pay As You Go System
The “redistribution of income,” of course, is anathema to conservatives and many Republicans, who have battled Social Security from its beginning as too much government. But younger persons (and many older beneficiaries) have little understood that Social Security is and always was a pay-as-you go system, in which today’s payroll taxes provides the benefits for the older generation.

Some in the younger generations resent that they pay for my benefits, but some day, with luck, the younger generation will grow older and will need their children’s contributions for their benefits. This pact between generations is one of Social Security’s great strengths and moral contributions.

Not a Ponzi Scheme
Another complaint heard from the younger generation is that Social Security returns too little on their investment, or that its like a Ponzi investment scheme, taking from newer members to pay older members.

But Social Security is not now and never was an investment plan; it is a pension and insurance plan with defined benefits based on one’s lifetime earnings, supported by $800 million (in 2008) in payroll taxes (12.4 percent, split between employer and worker) on incomes up to $106,800.

More on that cap later. But know this: in its 75 years, Social Security has never been on the red.

Nowhere Near Bankrupt
Nevertheless, too many young people – and demagogues in politics and business – have fallen for the myth that Social Security is near bankrupt and benefits won’t be there when they become eligible. But the 2009 report of the Social Security trustees, whose reports are made yearly, contradicts the gloom sayers.

Under the law, the trustees are obliged to peer 75 years into the future to assess Social Security’s health. Nowhere in any report have the trustees anticipated bankruptcy.

In the short-term, the trustees reported, the combined Old Age and Survivors Insurance (OASI) and the Disability Insurance (DI) trust funds are now adequately financed over the next ten years. Most such projections are based on very conservative economic growth rates and other estimates (by the Congressional Budget Office) are more optimistic.

Even though the recession has meant more money is being paid out that is coming in payroll taxes, the Social Security system remains in the black because of its increased earnings from interest (about $700 million a year) paid to the massive $2.4 trillion trust fund, which is expected to increase to $3.9 trillion by 2018. What a tempting dish of money the greedy privatizers would love to lay their hands on.

But in the longer term, if the growth rates are lower than they are now or have been, the trustees concluded that around 2018 the benefit costs will rise more rapidly than income, largely because of the retirements of the post-World War II baby boom generation (persons born between 1946 and 1964).

Economist Paul Krugman asks, “What happens in 2018 or whenever, when benefit payments exceed payroll tax revenues? The answer is nothing,” for the system can redeem some of those bonds it holds.”

Eventually, around 2037, say the trustees, Social Security will have to begin to cash in some of the special issue treasury bonds it holds to pay current benefits, but only if nothing is done by the Congress in the meantime.

We will get to proposed solutions, but I should note here how small the problem is: The trustees say Social Security’s deficit for the next 75 years amounts to two percent of payrolls, which means an increase of one percent in payroll taxes split between employee and employer could solve the coming shortfall.

But do you know of any bank or corporation that can say they will be in business for the next 30 years? Let me count: Whatever happened to U.S. Steel, the Pennsylvania and New York Central Railroads, Enron, AIG, and dozens of defunct banks and saving and loans?

Social Security and the Deficit
The privatizers and Obama’s commission are worried that entitlements such as Social Security are adding to the budget deficit. But the fact is that Social Security now adds not a penny to the deficit. Here’s why.

The heart of Social Security, the $600 billion plus benefits it pays, come out of self-sustaining trust funds paid for by payroll taxes. It is not – repeat - not part of the budget.

This year, the Social Security system, with more than 15,000 employees in Washington, its vast headquarters in Baltimore and hundreds of offices throughout the country, has asked for $21 billion for administration expenses.

It is one of the most efficient organizations in the land, sending out millions of checks on time, keeping track of the earning of millions of card holders, as well as monitoring Medicare and deciding on disability and survivor claims. That $21 billion, a tiny fraction of the benefits paid, is the only money that’s part of the deficit. (If Social Security, at some distant time, must redeem its bonds, the Treasury will reimburse Social Security and that expense would become part of the federal budget, but that’s a very long shot).

So why the fuss about Social Security adding to the deficit? The reason is the dishonesty of Republicans and their right-wing allies on the Commission who are using the deficit to dismantle and turn the program, which they’ve long opposed, into millions of private investment accounts.

Simpson told a reporter, contrary to the trustees, that Social Security is already broke. Erskine Bowles, Bill Clinton’s chief of staff was making a deal with Newt Gingrich to cut Social Security when it was sidetracked by Cinton’s troubles with Monica Lewinsky. If Bowles and Simpson are honest, they must know that the Social Security problem is not the deficit, but the long term financial health of the nation’s most treasured social insurance program.

That’s happened before and it took a couple of Republicans to save and strengthen the system.

Past Problems and Fixes
In 1983, when Social Security was in imminent danger, President Ronald Reagan, convened a commission headed by Alan Greenspan to solve its financial problems. Reagan had been a critic of Social Security, even suggesting that it be made voluntary, which would cause its collapse.

But Reagan grew in office and the Greenspan commission saved the system for the next 75 years with a few significant fixes. It slowly raised the retirement age to 67, it raised Social Security payroll taxes beyond what was needed to pay benefits and, most important, the commission brought into the system all federal (and many state) employees, including members of Congress who had their own retirement programs.

The result was the growth of the trust fund to an amount that will be able to pay benefits to the 70 million boomers. Simpson scoffs that the treasury bonds are “a bunch of IOUs” forgetting that all bonds are, in essence, IOUs. But the United States has never defaulted on its bonded debt.

Current Social Security Problems
Today the problems of Social Security, as the trustees indicated, are not grave. Greenspan says the coming Social Security shortfall “is not a big problem.” Yet members of Obama’s commission are seeking draconian fixes – all of which would cut benefits.

For example, they are considering slowly raising the retirement age to 70. But because Social Security is vital to keeping older people out of poverty, raising the retirement age would consign millions to live in poverty waiting for their benefits. How many people in their sixties who worked hard at tough jobs will die while waiting?

A study for the AFL-CIO by the liberal Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), notes that the commission so far has talked only about cutting Social Security benefits rather than shoring up the system. One proposal, changing the formula for calculating benefits, would reduce checks by up to 9.6 percent for middle income wage earners who are in their late 40s.

Raising the retirement age to 70 would cut benefits by up to 10 percent for workers in their forties and fifties.

And cutting the cost-of-living adjustment even by one percent would result in a 12 percent cut in benefits for retirees.

Economist Dean Baker, director of the CEPR, noted that so far the commission seems to be considering only benefit cuts. “There is a great deal of talk in policy circles about cutting Social Security, but very little discussion of the financial situation of those affected by the cuts.”

A poll by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, commissioned by the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, found that only two percent of Americans believe Social Security is a major cause of the deficit and 78 percent oppose raising the retirement age.

Easy Fixes for Social Security
There are easier fixes that won’t cut benefits: Obama proposed the simplest solution when he was running for president and before he became enamored with turning the cheek of compromise. At the moment, as I mentioned, the Social Security payroll tax is imposed on the first $106,800 of earnings, which means the most affluent executives pay no more than their secretaries. Obama proposed raising the cap to $250,000 while lowering the taxes for many workers.

The National Committee poll found that 50 percent of Americans, including some high wage-earners, favored solving Social Security’s future problem by removing the cap. The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein said the Congressional Budget Office estimates removing the cap would raise $100 billion a year in revenues. And it would solve Social Security’s future shortfall.

Even the most affluent figures, including Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, have suggested removing the cap. Social Security could also raise money by being allowed to invest in higher-yielding Treasury bonds rather than the lower yielding special bonds.

You can do some research on how to solve Social Security’s 30-year financial problem by playing the Social Security game at the site of the American Academy of Actuaries. It shows how removing the cap would more than solve the program.

But we Social Security advocates need you to understand that if the present version of the Republican Party regains control of Congress, it leaders and its candidates have promised to kill the nation’s finest contribution to social justice. They will dance on Social Security’s grave rather than celebrate its diamond jubilee.

For one of the best statements on Social Security and the deficit commission, here is the testimony of John Kenneth Galbraith's son at the deficit commission.

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, William Weatherstone: Seniors Beware: Modern Technology

REFLECTIONS: On Official Stupidity

SaulFriedman75x75 Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the twice-monthly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. His other column, Gray Matters, formerly published in Newsday, appears each Saturday.

Category_bug_reflections I doubt if you’ve heard of the late J. Edward Hutchinson, a Republican congressman from Michigan from 1963 to 1977. But for a time back then, he presented me and the rest of the press with a dilemma common in journalism, which has relevance today: How can we describe a politician or public official as dumb or stupid without being unfair, inaccurate or too subjective?

Hutchinson, a stolid old-line conservative, was the ranking, top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee considering the impeachment of President Richard Nixon for the crimes he committed in connection with the Watergate scandal. The Judiciary Committee under Rep. Peter Rodino, D - NJ, was careful to remain bipartisan and 11 Republicans worried about the rule of law and the integrity of the Constitution joined Democrats in voting for impeachment.

I covered those weeks of open and closed-door deliberations as a reporter for the then Knight Newspapers and as a columnist for the Detroit Free Press. During those weeks, Hutchinson said not a word and didn’t ask a single question in all the committee’s open sessions. And as far as I was able to determine he said and asked nothing in the closed meetings when evidence against and for the president was presented.

In short, Hutchinson, who should have been leading the committee Republicans was a cipher which, according to one dictionary, means a zero, a person or thing of no importance. He might as well not have been there. But he was, totally silent, except for voting “no” with ten other Republicans opposed to the first article of impeachment.

My problem, as I wrote in my column, was to explain Hutchinson’s silence. A journalist can call a politician “dynamic” or “forceful” but how to get across the subjective judgment that he/she is just plain dumb, dense, ignorant or stupid?

All I could do at the time was to describe his silence. Much later he was to tell Nixon to resign. But Hutchinson’s conduct on the committee was condemned by the Michigan legislature and he resigned in the face of a primary challenge by David Stockman, who went on to fame as Ronald Reagan’s budget director.

The rules of straight journalism are a lot looser today. The Wall Street Journal scored a breakthrough some years ago with a page one story that named the then-senator from Virginia, Bill Scott, as the dumbest member of Congress. Scott promptly confirmed the story by issuing a denial. Since then, in this age of journalism as entertainment and the wild blue blogosphere, almost anything goes.

So I feel confident that I can, with objectivity and enlightened subjectivity, point out stupidities like those of Rep. Michele Bachmann, R - Minn., a born-again and again Christian who began this session of Congress by calling for a congressional investigation of President Barack Obama and members of Congress who, she said, are “anti-American.”

I think she meant that they were, you should excuse the expression, “liberal.” She said she was “very concerned that Obama has anti-American views.” The president’s suggestion that young people serve in Americorp, she said, was a plot to put young Americans into “re-education camps.”

She was one of the leading Republican liars when she and others picked up Sarah Palin’s claim that the health reforms would create death panels to permit the euthanasia of the elderly. Politifact called it “the lie of the year.” But Bachmann has persisted and defended her racist colleague, Rep. Joe Wilson, R - SC when he shouted “You lie” at the president during his State of the Union speech.

And, as expected Bachmann has joined most Republicans calling for the repeal of the health reforms that are about to become effective and are supported by most Americans who want to give the reforms a chance to work.

Even before the president sealed the deal with BP CEO Tony Hayward to set aside, in escrow, $20 billion to pay for its oil spill damage to people and the environment, Bachmann was against it:

“The president just called for creating a fund that would be administered by outsiders. Which would be more of a redistribution of wealth fund. And not it appears like we’ll be looking at one more gateway for more government control, more money to government.”

The money, of course, is to go to victims of the spill. When the details, including the appointment of Kenneth Feinberg to monitor the claims as he did for New York’s responders to the 9/11 attack, she joined her equally dense Republican colleague, Rep. Joe Barton, of Texas, in calling the escrow account a “shakedown.”

She didn’t join in Barton’s apology to BP, but she hasn’t blamed it for the Gulf of Mexico disaster. It was Obama’s fault. The death panel lies and the misinformation about anything Obama proposes, will fade, but were they based on dumbness, ignorance, stupidity or political venality and the irrational hatred of their president?

Her candidate for President in 2012, she said, is fellow right-winger Rep. Steve King of Iowa who cast the lone vote last year against acknowledging that slaves help build the U.S. Capitol. He has described gay unions as a “purely socialist concept.” More recently he told interviewer G. Gordon Liddy, a Watergate burglar,

“I’m offended by [Attorney General] Eric Holder and the President...The President has demonstrated that he has a default mechanism in him that breaks down...on the side that favors the black person.”

Without foundation or any evidence, he accused Holder of not pursuing a series of cases because those accused were minorities.

I nearly forgot to include among the stupid or dumb death panel liars and nuts, Rep. Virginia Foxx, R - N.C., who seems like a benign grandma until she speaks. On the hate crimes legislation, passed as a result of the beating death of a gay man, Matthew Shepard, Foxx voted against it and said that reports that he was beaten because he was gay was “a hoax that continues to be used as an excuse for passing hate crime bills.”

Shepard’s mother heard that piece of cruelty in the gallery.

In September 2005, Foxx was one of 11 members of Congress to vote against a $51 million aid package, supported by George Bush, for victims of Hurricane Katrina. And she was one of 33 Republicans to vote against an extension of the 1964 Voting Rights Act.

But her fame rests with her opposition to the health care reforms which will make insurance, like the kind Foxx and other lawmakers have, more affordable for an estimated 40 million people who are uninsured.

But last July Foxx said, “There are no Americans who don’t have health care.” Echoing Bush’s assertion that people can always go to emergency rooms, she added, “Everybody in this country has access to health care. We do have 7.5 million Americans who want to purchase health insurance who cannot afford it.”

And in a floor speech, she took the death panels lie to this absurd conclusion:

“I believe we have more to fear from the potential of that bill passing than we do from any terrorist right now in any country...The [health reform bill] will put seniors in a position of being put to death by their government.”

Unfortunately, one of the dimmer lights in the U.S. Senate, Charles Grassley, R - Iowa, joined in that stupidity. The Institute of Medicine says that 18,000 to 22,000 deaths, including some of Foxx’s constituents, are recorded each year among those who are uninsured. Does Foxx care?

That question leads me to wonder why even smart politicians are so dumb as to fail to see the folly and danger to constituents in their own words. Case in point: Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, head of the Republican Governors’ Association and a longtime leader among more sensible Republicans.

He has ambitions for the presidency in 2012, but that was before he took a most sanguine view of the Gulf oil disaster that threatens the seafood-rich coastal waters of his state. With the oil heading toward Mississippi, Barbour likened it to the gasoline sheen found around ski boats. He said, “We don’t wash our face in it but it doesn’t stop us from jumping off the boat to ski.”

Before oil clumps started coming ashore, prompting his belated call for help from the federal government, Barbour said the spill was nowhere near the size of the one from the Exxon Valdez when, in fact, it’s many time larger.

He said, “It’s just possible that what happens here will be manageable and of moderate and even minimal impact.” Speaking of impact, it should be pointed out that BP gave the Republican Governors’ Association $10,000 a few years ago, part of $51,350 it got from oil companies which contribute heavily to the state’s tax base.

Even as dead fish washed ashore, while other Gulf Coast governors struggled for ways to keep the oil away, Barbour encouraged potential visitors to “come on down to play golf, enjoy the beach, catch a fish.”

Other Barbourisms: “If a small animal got coated enough with it (oil), it could smother it. But if you got enough toothpaste on you, you couldn’t breathe.” The oil, he said, is “weathered, emulsified, caramel colored mousse, like the food mousse. Once it gets to this stage it’s not poisonous.”

But Bob Cesca of Huffington Post pointed on June 26, to what he called “a new level of stupid” from Barbour, when the governor said, of the $20 billion BP was placing in escrow, “It bothers me to talk about causing an escrow account to be made, which will make it less likely that they’ll make the income that they need to pay us.” It took Jon Stewart to point out the absurdity: Said Cesca,

“Paraphrasing Stewart, Governor Barbour appears to be suggesting that if BP sets aside $20 billion to be paid to victims of the oil spill, it won’t have enough money to pay out to victims of the oil spill. In other words, Barbour is against compensating victims because he supports compensating victims.”

Barbour is no stranger to lost causes. Not far from the Confederate flag he keeps in his office signed by Mississippi’s Jefferson Davis, Barbour has a large portrait of the University Greys, a Confederate rifle company that suffered 100 percent casualties at Gettysburg.

And when Republican Governor Bob McDonnell of Virginia left any mention of slavery out of his declaration of Confederate History Month, Barbour defended him, saying, “there’s no need to mention slavery,” even though it was a central cause of the Civil War - uh, pardon me, The War between the States.

I tried to find Democrats on the various lists of stupid members of Congress, but the only one I found was an anonymous site that listed, former Rep. Cynthia McKinney, of Georgia, the first black woman to represent the state. She served six terms before she was defeated when Republicans crossed over to vote for her Democratic primary rival.

She may have been a firebrand and a conspiracy theorist, questioning who was behind 9/11 and she was quirky, but she was not stupid. She opposed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and ran for president for the Green Party.

It might be amusing to point to the foibles, the inanities and absurd statements of these mostly right-wing Republican figures. Indeed there have been more that I have not included. But their ignorance, stupidities and the venality that seems to accompany their hatred and opposition to everything their president says or does cannot help but hurt the nation, its institution and ordinary people.

What is the excuse for the Senate’s Republicans, who make a pretty good living off the taxpayers, to deny extended unemployment benefits to 1.4 million workers who have been without jobs for more than a year? Their kids, who are getting free breakfasts, are told by one Missouri legislator (a Republican) that they should have breakfast with their parents and not sponge on the government or get a job with McDonald’s to get free meals.

Republicans say they worry that the unemployment costs would increase the federal deficit which their votes during the Bush years helped create. The real reason, as expressed by George Will, was a hoary old Republican argument that was made against Social Security, that unemployment compensation will discourage people from looking for work.

At the same time, Will and his conservative cohorts criticize Obama for the lack of jobs. Go figure.

I believe there is something else at work here: There is plenty of evidence that Republicans, since 1992, have attempted to reverse elections that Democrats –and moderate liberals –have won. So Republicans, during the Newt Gingrich years and later, with the Starr and other pointless investigations, sought – with some success – to destroy and discredit Bill Clinton’s presidency. Unfortunately, Clinton did not help himself.

And in 2000 and 2004, Republican corporate money and right-wing activists undermined and reversed Democratic chances. At best, in the eyes of many Americans, the outcome of those elections remains questionable.

Now, yet again, the Republican mission, as enunciated by their gods, Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, is to bring about the failure of the Obama presidency and the reversal of the people’s will. Where is the party of Lincoln in this effort?

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Johna Ferguson: Chinese Features


SaulFriedman75x75 Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the twice-monthly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. His other column, Gray Matters, formerly published in Newsday, appears each Saturday.

Category_bug_reflections I have been to Israel more than a dozen times between 1947, when I ran away from home to briefly join the Haganah, and through my dozen years covering the peace talks that produced the Camp David Accords, Israel’s treaties with Egypt and Jordan, and a tentative agreement between the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israel’s Yitzhak Rabin.

I attended the signing of the treaty with Egypt on the north lawn of Jimmy Carter’s White House and the treaty with Jordan on a river wash between the two nations. And I celebrated with President Bill Clinton when he won the pledge of “no more war” from the Palestinians and Jews on a sun drenched day on the south lawn at the White House.

But much of those agreements have come to little. They have not brought peace. Rabin was murdered by an Israeli; Arafat’s Palestinians were hopelessly divided when he died. The Middle East became more volatile. So when the Israelis attacked the Turkish ship seeking to breach the Israeli blockade of Gaza with relief supplies, it brought to mind my encounter in 1978 with one of the legendary heroes in the founding of Israel – a man I knew as Captain Ike Aranne.

I was on an El Al flight from Nairobi, in Kenya, to Tel Aviv to meet my wife who was coming to Israel for the first time. She told me she had been reluctant to come because her orthodox Jewish father, in chanting the prayer at the end of the Passover seder, seemed to be saying something about dying in Jerusalem. And she thought from childhood that she would die if she went to Israel.

Anyway, I had spent some weeks in Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where it was suspected that Cuban troops were stirring trouble against the imperialist powers of France and Belgium, whose King Leopold had made billions from its copper and diamonds by wreaking great cruelties among the workers.

There were no Cuban troops. The country had been torn by civil war encouraged by the CIA, tribal rivalries, a culture of corruption and Zaire became a stake in the cold war. It was ruled by the pro-west dictator, Joseph Mobutu, who stole millions but he had the support of the U.S., the World Bank and Israel, which was seeking influence in Africa.

I was typing out on my Olivetti my final story from Zaire when the man next to me on the flight asked what I was doing. He was handsome and wiry with a shock of white hair, and I noticed that the El Al cabin crew seemed to treat him with deference. I told him who I was and asked him if he was someone famous.

He asked me if I had heard of the President Warfield. Garfield, I said but there was no President Warfield.

The President Warfield, he said, had been a Chesapeake Bay ferry named after the head of the company that owned it. It had been secretly purchased by the Israelis in 1947 to bring Jewish refugees from Nazism to British occupied Palestine. The ship had been renamed “Exodus 1947” and my seat mate was its captain who gave me his anglicized name, “Yitzhak (Ike) Aranne.”

In contrast to the happy ending of the Exodus voyage in the movie of the same name, the British, resisting the creation of a Jewish state, rammed and blockaded the ship and refused to let it land as it stood offshore for days packed with 4,500 sick and hungry passengers, three of whom died in battles with British who boarded the ship. The British raised the phony charge that the refugees were armed.

After days of fruitless negotiations, the vindictive British prime minister deported the ship and with nowhere else to land, it was forced to land in Germany, which just a few years earlier tried to kill every Jew in Europe.

The refugees were interned, but one result of the world-wide outcry on behalf of the Exodus, was the 1948 vote in the United Nations to partition Palestine, which gave Israel its independence but left the Palestinians in a national limbo. The voyage of the Exodus had worked.

Not surprisingly, The New York Times saw a parallel between the plight of the Exodus and the Israeli attack on the Turkish ship trying to breach the tight Israeli blockade of Gaza with food and other essentials. The Times reported on May 31, “To some Israeli observers, it was impossible to miss the parallels” with the story of the Exodus. Rafi Man, of the Israeli Democracy Institute, asked on his blog, “Will this be the Palestinian Exodus?”

I am not sure that Captain Ike would disagree with the parallel. Yitzhak Ahronovitch, who died in December at the age of 86, was among the earliest settlers. He came to Palestine from Poland when he was ten and he was only 23 when he commanded the Exodus. He had been a veteran merchant seaman during the Second World War and in the struggle against the British occupation, he was a member of the Palmach, the Haganah’s strike force, which fought the British occupiers with bombs and terrorism.

But when we spoke in his apartment, with his American-born wife, and over a long dinner in Joppa, he worried that the Israelis had lost their way and had become the hated occupiers – of the millions of Palestinians, farmers and shopkeepers who could trace their roots in Palestine-Israel back to Christ’s time.

As I remember it, Ike told me that the glow of Israel’s spectacular victory in the 1967 Six-Day War had turned to uncertainty. Israel had conquered three Arab armies and had taken control of Egypt’s Sinai, Syria’s Golan Heights, Jordan’s West Bank of the Jordan River and most treasured of all, the old city of Jerusalem and the Western Wall of an ancient Jewish temple.

The occupation of these territories, which is still not recognized as legal by the U.N. or the U.S., brought internal violence again as the Palestine Liberation Organization asserted itself with terror bombings not unlike those of the Palmach against the British occupation. As Ahronovitch told me, “We were sure that the ‘67 war would give us peace at last. But now, we don’t know what comes next.”

Israel’s confidence in its future as a Jewish state had been shaken.

By 1978, as Palestinian resistance grew more violent, the inevitable dynamic of the occupied and occupier became increasingly violent and the call for security clashed with the democratic idealism of the nation’s founders, like Ahronovitch. Palestinians were treated badly, to counter the violence of Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization, which led to stronger, angrier Palestinian resistance and the spiral of violence that continues today. Although Israel regards itself as the only democracy in the Middle East, democracy does not extend to the Palestinians, Israeli Arabs, the Bedouins and non-Jews.

The traditionally non-secular (younger, immigrant) Jews in Israel have become dominated by orthodox Rabbis and their right-wing parties (women are forbidden to pray at the Western Wall) have turned racist, seeking to expel the Palestinians and even the Israeli Arabs. For self-protection, the Israelis have built apartheid walls which keep the Palestinians and their plight out of sight of most Israelis and visiting Americans.

Because of real security concerns, the domination of the Israeli Defense Forces in the cabinet and the religious orthodoxy that closes down the country on the Sabbath and rules the lives of women, in particular, have made much of Israeli a military theocracy. Such are the fruits of occupation that lead to unintended consequences. To counter the influence of the non-secular Palestinians, Israel invited into the country elements of the deeply religious Muslim Brotherhood, based in Egypt.

They became Hamas, a grass roots political and social movement hostile to the more moderate non-fundamentalist Palestinians. Hamas’ religious fundamentalism is especially hostile towards Israel as an affront to the Muslim faith. But they won a democratic election and they now rule Gaza from which they send rockets into Israel, which responded with an invasion, many innocent civilian deaths and today’s blockade.

So nowhere is the peace in sight that Yitzhak Ahronovitch had hoped for in 1978. For without the reluctant support of the Palestinians, Hamas and the stalling Israelis, the so-called two-state solution seems untenable.

That brings me to another sad chapter in the ongoing Middle East drama - the reprehensible call by my friend, a long time colleague, that Israel should “get the hell out of Palestine” and Jews should go back to the European nations of their origin. But I know something of the background to the outburst.

Helen Thomas, born in Kentucky into a Lebanese family, covered dozens of Israeli officials who came to the White House and she traveled to Israel with presidents. Despite her inner anger at some of the more hostile Israeli statements and policies towards Arabs, and their bloody invasions of Lebanon, her reports remained straight with nary a hint of how she feels.

But her unthinking mini-diatribe, was born from frustration that the 30-year peace process is going nowhere and suggests a new path to peace – the one state solution in which Israel and Palestinians shared the land as Israel’s founders intended.

Let’s face it: It is impossible to cobble together two states out of the walled off Palestinians whose lands are torn by hundreds of armed settlements, a modern semi-secular and paranoid Israel and the besieged, destitute and powerless Gaza under Hamas. So why not one state with Palestinians and Jews who are more alike than they would admit, in looks, culture, intelligence, intellectual achievement, a desire for education, business sense and acquisitiveness, their penchant accumulate wealth and build a business?

In 2003, the Middle East scholar and political scientist Virginia Tilley, writing from South Africa in the London Review of Books, and writer Tony Judt, who is Jewish and a frequent writer on the Middle East, opened a discussion on the alternative to the faltering two-state solution.

TILLEY: “The two state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an idea and possibility whose time has passed, its death obscured by the spectacle–the hoopla of useless road maps, the cycle of Israeli gun ship assassinations and Palestinian suicide bombings, the dismal Palestinian power struggles, the house demolitions....” And now as a last resort for safety, the walls of what Israelis acknowledge as Apartheid. What next?

JUDT: “The peace process is dead. The time has come to think the unthinkable. The two-state solution— the core of the Oslo process and the present 'road map — is probably already doomed. With every passing year we are postponing an inevitable, harder choice that only the far right and far left have so far acknowledged, each for its own reasons.

“The true alternative facing the Middle East in coming years will be between an ethnically cleansed Greater Israel and a single, integrated, bi-national state of Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians. That is indeed how the hard-liners in Israel’s cabinet see the choice; and that is why they anticipate the removal of the Arabs as the ineluctable condition for the survival of a Jewish state.”

Other Middle East actors, including the Palestinian Authority have begun serious consideration of the one-state solution. The early Zionists, like Yitzhak Ahronovitz, according to Amos Elon, saw Israel (perhaps naively) as a socialist democratic home for Jews and Arabs, not necessarily a secular Jewish State, but a homeland for the Diaspora.

Captain Ike would not have supported the unthinkable, the expulsion of millions of Palestinians. If there is to be peace, I believe the one state solution – call it Israel or Palestine or both – inevitable.

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Mary B Summerlin: Feeling Smug

REFLECTIONS: On the Paranoid Style

SaulFriedman75x75 Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the twice-monthly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. His other column, Gray Matters, formerly published in Newsday, appears each Saturday.

Category_bug_reflections Suddenly, libertarianism has become the newest fashion among the paranoid in American politics. But be not deceived; they are just as reactionary and extreme as their more deranged and schizophrenic political brethren on the far, far right who want to “take back” the government they hate in order to cripple it.

But libertarians are getting a measure of respect in much of the mainstream press and approval by 38 percent of Americans largely as a result of its two most prominent figures, Representative Ron Paul, a likeable Texas Republican, and his son Randall (Rand), who has captured the Republican nomination for the Kentucky Senate seat being vacated by a true oddball, Jim Bunning, a former star major league pitcher.

Perhaps Rand Paul, a practicing opthamologist who ran as a tea bagger, seemed sane compared to Bunning and the Kentucky Republican establishment that ran Bunning out of office, then endorsed a front man for the GOP regulars.

I’m not sure why the Pauls ally themselves with Republicans, most of whom stand for policies, deficit spending and the kind of central government they hate. They could follow the lead of liberal socialists like Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont who votes with the Democrats (not all the time) but lists himself as an independent.

Rather, as we shall see, these libertarians are not independent from the right-wing Republican Party.

But the Pauls and libertarianism are getting a relatively friendly press because they are not firebrands and libertarianism seems a rather benign, principled ideology which calls for the smallest central government possible.

Ron Paul has been a loyal Republican in the House, but when he ran for President in 2008 he seemed more eccentric than threatening. And he has differed from most of the Congress in opposing George Bush’s war in Iraq and his violations of civil liberties.

The positions of the Libertarian Party, founded in 1971, seem benign and consisting of mere slogans. It is holding its convention this spring with the theme “Gateway to Liberty,” and some of its positions on civil liberties (not civil rights) and the war in Iraq, which Ron Paul opposed, are admirable. But where principled libertarianism goes off the rails is its insistence on a small government as envisioned by agrarian President Thomas Jefferson. It’s not only hypocritical, but useless and dangerous.

I recall an ongoing conversation I had some years ago with one of the officials of the Cato Institute, Washington’s leading and richest libertarian think tank. He held that Jefferson made a mistake in setting a precedent for expanding presidential power when he undertook to make the Louisiana Purchase, 828,000 square miles west of the Mississippi from New Orleans to the Canadian border for about $15 million.

My Cato friend argued, as Jefferson’s conservative critics argued then, that the Constitution did not specifically permit such presidential power. Jefferson, who feared that the Spanish, French and English could establish colonies along the Mississippi and cut off the nation’s western expansion, argued that the Constitution did not prohibit the president from taking such action.

Since then, libertarians have regularly argued that presidents and the Congress have trampled on the Constitution’s limitations and expanded government for purposes that limited the freedom of the individual to make his/her own decisions and take responsibility for his/her actions.

That is essentially the Cato view, which favors “the traditional American principles of limited government, individual liberty, free markets and peace.”

But since Jefferson, the limits of government have been steadily enlarged – by John Adams’s Alien and Sedition laws, Andrew Jackson’s federal bank, Woodrow Wilson’s decisions that brought the U.S. into foreign wars, Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. But Cato has rarely protested or lobbied against Republicans.

Instead, aided by its right-wing corporate sponsors, Cato has opposed most industry regulations, most social programs, the income tax, gun control, the Federal Reserve, much of the United Nations actions and the International Court of Justice on the grounds that they impinge on the U.S. Constitution and the rights of Americans.

And in practice, Cato and the libertarians support most of the conservative Republican initiatives to end Social Security and Medicare.

The last time I was at the Cato Institute, I attended a lecture by then-Representative Dick Armey, [R., Tex.], who taught economics at a small Texas college before he became the House Majority Leader, second in command to Speaker Newt Gingrich. They had taken control of the Congress with their “Contract for America” which consisted, among other things, of stripping the Food and Drug administration and the financial industry of regulations dating back to the New Deal. Armey’s special cause was, as he put to me, to “wean our old people away from Medicare” by slowly privatizing the program.

At the Cato Institute, Armey told the friendly crowd that he had decided not to participate in Medicare. And he recommended that as a libertarian course - that is, individuals should be at liberty to care for themselves through the free market.

Indeed, since then, Armey has sued to permit him and other plaintiffs to prohibit the government from forcing persons on Social Security to become participants in Medicare Part A. If upheld, such an action by enough libertarians would undermine Medicare’s beleaguered Hospital Insurance Fund.

Naturally, the Cato libertarians and every Republican opposed the Affordable Health Care Act, which, among other things, saved the trust fund for another 12 years. And Armey, a paid lobbyist, used his “Freedom Works” organization to round up corporate backing and money for the phony grass roots numbskulls that became the tea baggers.

It should be clear that despite the prineipled intents of those members who think of themselves as independents, libertarians have been right-wing Republican wolves in sheep’s clothing and part of what ths historian, Richard Hofstadter, called “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.”

It is worth revisiting his famous essay. It was written in 1964, when one of the heroes of libertarianism, Barry Goldwater, had captured the Republican Party.

The essay appeared in Harper’s Magazine shortly before the presidential elections began.

“American politics has often been an arena for angry minds,” wrote Hofstadter. “In recent years we have seen angry minds at work mainly among extreme right-wingers who have now demonstrated in the Goldwater movement how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority...I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind.”

Hofstadter, the scholar, traced the paranoid style back to the anti-Masons and the anti-Catholics. But he wrote in the wake of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s crusade against communists, the rise of the John Birch Society, which joined McCarthy in attacking President Eisenhower as a “conscious agent of the communist conspiracy.”

Goldwater opposed Medicare, the minimum wage, federal aid to schools and all welfare as “socialism.” With a famous speech of support from Ronald Reagan, the Goldwater movement reached its peak during the presidency of a liberal Democrat. It lost the 1964 election to Lyndon Johnson, but Goldwater’s libertarian heirs, which supported the non-libertarian, big government, Richard Nixon, solidified their takeover of the Republican right under the leadership of Ronald Reagan.

Later in life, Reagan and Goldwater, moderated their views on social issues and would not now qualify for the libertarian pantheon.

Today, the Paranoid style is best represented by the supposed libertarian tea baggers (of which Rand Paul is a leader), when they depict another liberal Democratic president as a “Marxist, socialist, communist and Muslim.” It turns out that most tea baggers are Republicans, but with a special venom for Obama and liberals and the federal government.

What else but deranged paranoia can explain the assertion by non-church goer Newt Gingrich, a thrice married admitted draft dodger, that the Obama administration and the Democrats in Congress are a “secular socialist machine” that “represents as great a threat to America as Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union?”

A moderate Republican, TV host and former congressman Joe Scarborough called Gingrich’s remarks, “sick” and “pure wingnuttery.” Libertarians and the rest of the Republican Party remained silent.

That’s because – Gingrich’s language aside – most Libertarian Republicans, with the Pauls leading the way, are just as extreme in their views. Rand Paul, who says he’s for limiting the government’s intrusion in our lives, suggested last month to a Russian TV interviewer that the U.S. should abandon its policy of granting citizenship to the children of undocumented immigrants even if they’re born on U.S. soil.

That would be a direct violation of the Constitution. (See the 14th Amendment.)

But that isn’t the end of it for the Pauls. Father Ron has voted consistently with the lockstep Republicans against every Obama proposal like a good soldier in the Party of No.

In 2004, he was the only House member to vote against a resolution commemorating the 40th anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act which he denounced in a floor speech as a violation of property rights.

Son Rand, in his heart of hearts, still opposes the part of the 1964 Act (which Goldwater voted against) outlawing discrimination in restaurants and other private establishments open to the public. He also opposes all forms of gun control, even for suspected terrorists ad undocumented immigrants.

As Joe Conason wrote for Truthout, libertarians would take us back to the nation of Jefferson’s time:

“So they would do away with legal restrictions on wages, hours and working conditions, including the minimum wage and child labor laws.”

And if carried to the principled libertarian extreme, the Pauls would have to support the abolition of Medicare, Social Security, Medicaid, food stamps, public schools and the national parks because private is better than public.

I’m sure that the pressures of practical politics would mitigate these principles. But the Pauls ought to be grilled in the way Rand was outed by Rachel Maddow’s interview to admit his opposition to the Civil Rights Act.

How far do his and his father’s libertarian principles take them in their opposition to the myriad laws and the actions of the federal government to mitigate inequity and promote “the general welfare”and social justice? I’d like someone to ask them, for example, how they differ from the Republicans.

According to Conason. Dr. Rand Paul, the opthamologist, who opposes public programs like Medicare as an intrusion on individual rights, is also opposed to the impending 21 percent cut in Medicare’s payment to physicians. So far his Republican brethren have blocked votes on delaying the cut. I don’t know how Rand Paul would vote.

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Marcia Mayo: Old Bag


SaulFriedman75x75 Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the twice-monthly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. His other column, Gray Matters, formerly published in Newsday, appears each Saturday.

Category_bug_reflections This began as an essay on longevity, the advances the United States and much of the world have made in increasing life expectancy. Then I came across this piece from The New York Times of October 24, 1880. The story, entitled, Living Too Long, began:

“Generally speaking, one of the last and least of our anxieties is that we may live too long. Throughout youth and maturity, the prospect of longevity is very apt to be pleasant, for the thing itself seems desirable – far more so in the distance than if at hand.”

As usual, The Times came to no conclusion although the article made a strong case against growing too old without telling us how long is too long? In 1880, the life expectancy in the U.S. for white males was 40. Today it’s 78.2, somewhat less than Japan (82.6) and most of Europe, (in the 80s) all of which provide universal health care.

But it’s not my aim to promote access to good health care, but to examine a strange phenomenon. The world has had great success since 1880 in achieving a longer, heathier life for people almost everywhere. Indeed, life expectancy in most of the world has grown by 10 years just since 1960. And yet, too many Americans, politicians and ordinary people seem to fear longevity, and some are questioning whether we’re living too long.

A woman I met years ago who was the subject of my column on the problems of older Americans, had just placed her husband, suffering from Parkinson’s disease, in a nursing home and she didn’t know how to pay for it and continue to keep up her own home and living standards. “Who knew I would live this long?” she said. She was only 70.

A few weeks ago, a reader told me quite candidly that people on Medicare or Social Security were selfish and should forgo these programs, “that will keep you alive for a few more years; better to use the money to send your grandchildren to college.”

That we on Medicare and Social Security’s are living too long and are a drain on the rest of society is not a new idea. Twenty five years ago, the Atlantic Monthly, with the help of an ugly caricature, depicted older Americans as “Greedy Geezers.”

And about that time, then Gov. Richard Lamm of Colorado told a meeting of lawyers that elderly people who are terminally ill “have a duty to die and get out of the way” rather than try to survive by artificial means. People who allowed themselves to die, he said, are like “leaves falling off a tree and forming humus for other plants to grow...Let the other society, our kids, build a reasonable life.” He figured it’s better to be humus than to watch your grandchildren grow up.

In 1996, as a former governor, Lamm was at it again calling for Medicare to be cut tenfold because it was spending too much prolonging lives. And he predicted tht, as the society ages, “we have to learn to run a nation of 50 Floridas.” As we shall see, that sour vision of the future has cropped up more recently.

But the criticism that Medicare spent too much money on the last years of the lives of beneficiaries, along with efforts by Newt Gingrich’s Republican Congress to privatize Medicare and cut its funding, prompted Medicare in 1995 to begin its hospice program.

Medicare paid fully to care for patients whose doctor attested that they had less than six months to live. Patients who volunteered to enter hospice had to agree that they could receive only palliative care – pain killers and bedside help - to make them comfortable. But they were denied curative treatment, including their own routine medicines, even if there was a chance it would prolong their lives.

But the hospice program gave lie to the notion that death is the answer to saving money. Fortunately, as medical advances such as chemotherapy, open heart surgery and more sophisticated diagnostic techniques like the CT-Scan and PET-Scan became available and common, it was no longer as easy as Lamm suggested to call patients terminally ill, or to predict how much longer they had to live.

Few doctors will tell a patient how long he or she has to live for the course of an illness is not predictable for everyone. Cancer patients today may survive into their eighties. And the severely disabled, like Stephen Hawking, may contribute handsomely to the living.

As a result, Medicare now recognizes that the six-month prediction of a doctor, which is still required, may be extended indefinitely under current Medicare rules. Indeed, some patients get well enough to opt out of hospice care. In addition, Medicare dropped its prohibition on curative care and now permits a cancer patient to continue chemotherapy while in hospice.

Nevertheless, Medicare hospice will take over the care of a patient and is there to provide care for the patient (and comfort for the family) at the end of life.

Thus, it has become obvious that there is nothing predictable about aging except that it will end. Everything else is a matter of luck, background, chance, environment, genes and perception. We are not as old as our parents were at our age. And likely they didn’t live to be our age.

You know the cliches: 40 is the new 30; 60 is the new 50; and so on. As the boomers came of age, AARP recognized the changes in the perception and the realities of aging when it lowered its membership eligibility age to 50. In short, longevity is to be celebrated rather than feared.

One of the first writers to call for a celebration of longevity was social historian, Theodore Roszak, who wrote the classic study of the Sixties and coined a new phrase, in The Making of A Counter Culture. In his 1998 book, America the Wise, he called on the nation to celebrate and welcome the wisdom of America’s booming population of older Americans.

“The future belongs to maturity,” he wrote. “Never before has an older generation (more than 80 million Americans in their sixties, seventies, eighties and even nineties) been so conversant with so many divergent ideas and dissenting values.”

His book was published before the full force of the digital explosion, but the older generation, the aging boomers and even those who may be called elderly, are not lagging behind younger Americans in their skills with computers and accompanying gadgets. Indeed, the geniuses at Apple, Google, IBM, Microsoft and Amazon are beyond their boomer years.

Roszak’s 2001 update of America the Wise, entitled The Longevity Revolution, says of longevity, “It is inevitable. It is good.” His optimism is shared by the godfather of the study of aging, Dr. Robert N. Butler, a geriatrician and founder of the New York-based International Longevity Center, a think tank on issues facing older America.

Butler won a Pulitzer Prize for his 1975 book, Why Survive, a pioneering study of what it’s like to grow old in America. His was not an encouraging picture of “old age.” He became the first director of the National Institute on Aging, and has done more than any one to call attention to the potential and problems of longevity. And despite the longevity alarmists, much has changed for the better.

His latest book, in contrast to his first, celebrates the rewards and possibilities of aging in America. Entitled The Longevity Prescription, Butler, who is active in his eighties, begins with a chapter on “Embracing longevity.” He notes that in the beginning of the 19th Century, life expectancy was 35. “In round numbers we can anticipate living ten thousand days longer than our ancestors could a century ago.”

Butler established the first school of geriatric medicine at New York’s Mt. Sinai Hospital, and speaking as a doctor, Butler says,

“The average American does not need to resign himself or herself to spending these added decades descending slowly and unhappily into disease and disability...You are not your parents’ genes.”

And he proceeds to dispel some of the myths of aging and he prescribes some reasonable things all of us can do to prevent illness and remain active and mentally alert. “No matter what your age, there are ways to enhance your longevity.” They seem as obvious as his admonition to quit smoking (Butler was a smoker), but they are too often overlooked.

His advice includes, how to maintain mental vitality; why you should nurture old and new relationships; and how to get effective medical care.

I have interviewed Butler, was a participant at his first Age boom Academy at his longevity center and I know that he and Roszak are ardent defenders of Social Security and Medicare and advocates for single-payer, universal health insurance. To these ends, the new version of Roszak’s book exposes the rich predators who see longevity as “the Gray Peril,” driving America into bankruptcy because of the increasing costs of Medicare and Social Security.

Chief among these attackers of entitlements is former Nixon Commerce Secretary Pete Peterson, a Wall Street billionaire who now runs the right-wing Concord Coalition, which would privatize Social Security and Medicare. Roszak wrote that Peterson, who published a dire warning about the growth of entitlements in The Atlantic in May,1996, believes that they are unsustainable, unprincipled and unfair.

But more striking, said Roszak, Peterson’s warning treated older Americans as “an alien species of obnoxious, geriatric layabouts thronging the sunny shores of Florida.” He too warned that we should be prepared to become a nation of Floridas.

Nevertheless, Peterson’s long crusade has found comfort in, of all places, the Obama administration. Under pressure from conservative Democrats as well as Republicans, Obama created a commission to deal with the rising deficit. And as expected, the deficit hawks are not singling out the cost of wars and the military, but entitlements, including Social Security, which is sustained by payroll taxes and adds nothing to the deficit. And contrary to too much misleading reporting, it remains financially sound for at least another 30 years.

Peterson, who made millions as a hedge fund manager and took advantage of tax breaks, “continues to lecture on the need to cut Social Security and Medicare for retirees who have a tiny fraction of his wealth,” said economist Dean Baker.

Because of the recession and high unemployment, the Social Security system will pay out more in benefits this year and next than it takes in payroll taxes, but that happened in the recession of 1981-2 and in 1983, Ronald Reagan approved a fix that saved Social Security for 75 years.

Thus Baker chastised the Wall Street Journal for saying the Social Security trust fund will show a deficit; the trust fund earns interest on the bonds it sells to the Treasury and will show a surplus of $100 billion this year.

But on the larger issue of entitlement spending, Princeton’s Uwe Reinhardt, the nation’s leading heath economist  put the hysteria about the cost of entitlements in perspective. In a lecture for the Woodrow Wilson School in Washington, he noted that outlays for all Social Security programs, though not part of the budget, will remain flat at six percent of the Gross Domestic Product for the next 60 years, while Medicare spending will rise from the current 3.59 percent to 8.74 percent in 2050.

But not to worry, Reinhardt said. By 2050, even at an annual growth rate of 1.5 percent, the GDP per capita will grow from the current $40,0,000 to $78,200.

“Why should I worry about who will be running the world in 2050,” said Reinhardt, “when they will have so much real GDP to play with.”

Finally, Pete Peterson and his Wall Street allies are smart enough to know, for example, that Social Security is not a budget problem. So why are they attacking it? For the same reason George W. Bush sought to turn the insurance and pension program into millions of 401(k)s: think of how Wall Street will celebrate if the brokers and bankers can get their hands on the bonds in the trust fund, worth $2.5 trillion.

I don’t think that will happen unless the Republicans, who are calling for the partial privatization of Social Security, get another chance to govern. Then those of us who welcome our own longevity will have reason to be afraid, very afraid.

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Helen: Possibilities in the Middle of a Book

REFLECTIONS: On a Republican Return

SaulFriedman75x75 Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the twice-monthly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. His other column, Gray Matters, formerly published in Newsday, appears each Saturday.

Category_bug_reflections I can’t figure why Republican Sue Lowden who opposed the health reforms and seriously suggested bartering (with chickens or vegetables) to pay for medical care, is ahead in the polls and may defeat Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, who has led the fractious Senate to pass historic legislation and whose position gives Nevada great influence.

But then, consider the real and frightening possibility that the tortuous Oklahoma law all but outlawing all abortions, and the Arizona law calling for a police state to deal with undocumented immigrants could easily became the laws of our land should this brand of Republicans return to power next year or in 2012.

These draconian laws are not isolated events, but part of a pattern of reaction that threatens a restoration of the worst of the George W. Bush/Dick Cheney/Newt Gingrich/Sara Palin/Rush Limbaugh/Glenn Beck politics.. These are people who have threatened to secede or nullify laws they don’t like or understand because a liberal Democrat is in office.

I had written this and then saw that Frank Rich echoed my thoughts in the May 2 New York Times:

“The more you examine the (Arizona’s) law provisions and proponents (every Republican in the legislature) the more you realize it’s the latest and (so far) most vicious battle in a far broader movement that is not just about illegal immigrants – and that is steadily increasing its annexation of one of America’s two major political parties...The law dovetails seamlessly with the national ‘Take Back America’ crusade...”

First we should take note of the meanness of the crusaders and these Republicans as they toss around epithets like “socialist,” “communist,” “traitor” and “baby killer.” Such rhetoric that has been thrown at the president, Democrats and liberals has its origins in Newt Gingrich’s 1995 memo to the Republican political action committee, called GOPAC: “Language: A Key Mechanism of Control,” which taught conservatives to use sharp and negative words and exaggerations to describe Democrats and positive expressions for Republicans.

And Gingrich lectured in training sessions on how to use “shield issues” such as abortion, same sex unions, gay rights and immigration to disguise the Republican agenda while putting Democrats on the defensive.

Consider the downright maliciousness of the Republicans towards women going through a crisis of an unwanted or dangerous pregnancy in the Oklahoma anti-abortion law, which evades the guarantees of Roe v. Wade. The law debases women and treats them like farm animals because they choose (and may need ) an abortion.

Even if their pregnancy is life threatening, they are required to undergo an ultrasound and a vaginal procedure to view the fetus. Mississippi’s abortion prohibition stands even in the case of birth defects. Florida’s law requires a doctor to describe the ultrasound results even if the woman doesn’t want to know. And these Republicans preach against the dangers of government intrusion into our lives.

The Arizona law is similarly vindictive as well as a racist reaction to the fact that, as Rich pointed out, the state’s Anglo-Caucasian population, which votes Republican  is becoming a minority. Senator John McCain, who once supported a decent immigration law, now panders to the radicals who have him under siege.

The Times veteran Supreme Court reporter, Linda Greenhouse, called the law a police state measure not unlike the worst of Soviet communism and South African pass laws, which required black people to have passes to go to certain areas. She described it as “breathing while undocumented.” She is correct when she says that Barry Goldwater, a true conservative, would never have supported such a trampling on his libertarian soul.

The language of the law is bad enough as a government intrusion into an individual’s rights, but its consequences include breaking up hundreds of families who have lived and worked in America for years if one partner is undocumented.

Former Republican congressman Duncan Hunter, from California, who also believes in the right to life (which, he says, begins at conception) wants to deport the live children of undocumented immigrants born in the U.S. He has also favored repeal of the 14th Amendment which guarantees equal rights to all Americans including, according to the courts, children of undocumented immigrants.

And Arizona followed up its racism with punitive legislation to ban teachers with “heavy accents” and to prohibit ethnic studies. In Alabama the Republican candidate for governor said he saw no need to study any language besides English.

I have dwelt on the these two issues, because they illustrate the most politically profitable and easily demagoged “shield issues” that put Democrats on the defensive. But they are all of a piece with the radical and revanchist efforts of the Republicans to take revenge for the 2008 election and “take America back” - that is, take the nation back from Barack Obama and his government activism.

That seems to mean returning to the agendas of the last dozen years during which the Republican Party has undergone the kind of metamorphosis imagined by Kafka. His character awoke to find out he had turned into a bug.

The radical Republicans, for example, include an army of fundamentalist Christians who believe, as George Bush believed, that homosexuality is a disease that can be cured, and that creationism belongs right up there with (or even ahead of) Charles Darwin in public schools.

These Republicans would also end any real action on climate change for among this party’s leaders are the two most conservative, anti-government senators from Oklahoma, James Imhofe, who denies any possibility of man-made climate change, and Dr. Tom Coburn, who delights in saying “no” to any and all legislation and nominees by Democrats. Funny that both anti-government senators collect their handsome salaries and perks.

But the denial of evolution and climate change would be in line with a revival of a Bush know-nothing doctrine, reported in Politics Daily by Sheila Kaplan, who wrote that the Environmental Protection Agency staff was forced to ignore relevant science in monitoring data on the environment’s impact on human health.

The same was true at the Food and Drug Administration and every federal regulatory body that was based on science.

There is little doubt that the radical Republicans, with the help of the insurance and drug industry, would relax or ignore all regulations of the recently passed health reforms. They may not be able to repeal it, but Republicans are not known for enforcing regulations. So expect Medicare to be privatized. And Social Security may fall to the privatizers.

If and when the Tea Baggers take back America, their Republican masters will put the financial regulators like the Securities Exchange Commission back to sleep so we can have a repeat of Madoff, Lehman Brothers. Said Roy Ulrich, writing for the think tank, Demos, “Financial regulators during the Bush era kept their foot off the pedal for ideological reasons and failed to spot” or simply ignored the crimes before their eyes.

Similarly, the Office of Thrift Supervision, led by regulators who didn’t believe in regulation, failed to see the coming collapse of Washington Mutual.

Closer to criminal neglect were the hijinks, including parties, drug and alcohol use, sexual encounters, and bribery in the Department of Interior’s Minerals Management Service and the Mine Safety and Health Administration. The latter is under investigation for failing its regulatory responsibilities which contributed to the disaster at the Massey Energy mine that killed 29 miners. Massey had been cited for dozens of safety violations, but suffered only wrist slaps.

The Minerals Management Service, according to the Wall Street Journal, failed to require British Petroleum to install an acoustical switch, or control, required on foreign oil rigs that might have prevented today’s catastrophe. The reason? Regulation was not a priority for BP which has been involved in several oil spills.

The switch costs a half-million dollars to install but, according to environmental attorney Mike Papantonio, speaking on the MSNBC’s Ed Schultze show, that regulation was tossed out for drilling off America’s shores during still-secret meeting Vice-president Dick Cheney had with oil industry executives in 2001.

In addition, says the Journal, the job Cheney’s former company, Halliburton, did in failing to cement the well has also been called into question. Maybe better cementing or the installation of the acoustic switch might not have worked, but we’ll never know.

Too often in journalism, we are so preoccupied with events, each of which is worth our full attention, that we fail to connect the dots from the Republican crusade against abortion and illegal immigrants to the mine disaster, to the financial meltdown and the unregulated free market that is now responsible for the worst environmental disaster to befall the nation.

Is this the America the radical Republicans intend to give us when they take it back?

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Sheila Halet: The Book of Days


SaulFriedman75x75 Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the twice-monthly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. His other column, Gray Matters, formerly published in Newsday, appears each Saturday.

Category_bug_reflections Nothing gets me more angry than the looney know-nothings who toss epithets like fascist and communist at our president - Democrats and liberals, among others.

Never mind that the two are at opposite ends of the political spectrum, these numb nuts are so criminally ignorant of history they don’t seem to realize that these ideologies – fascism and communism – are not just words on a placard. Many millions have suffered, died and fought over these ideas, which ruled much of the world in the last century. Their legacy, which still lingers, is not to be taken lightly.

Besides, those who hurl these loaded words like curses, are diminishing their value much like the overuse of the F-word diminishes its worth. But I am reminded of my Uncle Sam, of whom I’ve written, for although he never used such a word, one of his favorite epithets was “fascist” which he used freely and for good reason.

A non-card carrying socialist, Sam spat the word fascist, like an expletive, at radio commentators in the 1940s like Gabriel Heatter and H.V. Kaltenborn, when he thought they were not sufficiently anti-Nazi or pro-FDR. But that was a time when fascism in Germany, Italy, Spain and Japan threatened to engulf the rest of the civilized world.

Do the loonies know that our allies in the struggle against fascism included the communist Soviet Union?

The U.S. came late to the fight because of the American tradition of isolationism, the influence of right-wing commentators who wanted no part of a Roosevelt war, ugly memories of World War I and the rise of the German-American Bund and its allies. Ironically, the earliest and most ardent anti-fascists in Spain, Italy and Germany were socialists, social democrats and communists.

In those days fascism had a toehold in the U.S. partly because it was virulently anti-communist. And communism seemed the greater threat after World War I when the then-attorney general, Mitchell Palmer rounded up suspected “reds” who supported the aggressive new labor movement and sympathized with the new socialist Soviet state before it fell to Stalin.

Socialists and unions gained strength through the Thirties when the U.S. seethed with discontent during the worst of the great depression. Roosevelt’s New Deal, which helped save American capitalism, was nevertheless seen by Republicans and big business as socialist and communist. They seemed to be justified in their fear of the left for many New Deal programs, like the Federal Writers Project, made communists and socialists welcome. And films like Grapes of Wrath were sympathetic toward the left.

The backlash from the right was inevitable as strikes and the militancy of labor unions, like the International Workers of the World, the I.W.W., or “Wobblies,” the United Mine Workers and the United Auto Workers which engaged in sit-down strikes that took over factories, erupted in bloodshed and clashes between workers and the law or goons hired by companies.

All this coincided with ominous events abroad - Francisco Franco’s right-wing overthrown of the infant Spanish Republic, Benito Mussolini’s takeover of the disheveled Italian government and, of course, Adolph Hitler’s unimpeded German expansion, seen by many as a bulwark against the Soviets. Some Americans volunteered to fight Franco and Picasso depicted the horror of the unprecedented fascist air attacks on civilians Spain with “Guernica.”

Classical fascism, according to dictionary definitions, is a “radical and authoritarian national political ideology. Fascists seek to organize a nation on corporatist perspectives, values and systems.”

In Germany, Italy and Spain, dictatorships were established with the help and power of the military and the dominant corporations. All were one-party military dictatorships which promised to bring order to end the chaos, unemployment and runaway inflation of the struggling democracies that were snuffed out.

But none matched the Nazis’ brand of fascism in their brutality towards Jews, homosexuals, Gypsies and other minorities, with their ideology of racial purity and Hitler’s single-minded ambition to dominate all of Europe.

As the misnamed National Socialists – the Nazis – gained power while the U.S. and Congressional witch hunters worried more about communists, prominent writers like Sinclair Lewis, in his 1935 book, It Can’t Happen Here (also a movie), parodied how fascism could come to America. The prominent Louisiana politician, then-Senator Huey Long, was quoted as saying that fascism would come to America wrapped in the American flag.

But that idea really came in a 1938 sermon a prominent Professor of Divinity at Yale, Halford E. Luccock, who according The New York Times, told his audience,

“When and if fascism comes to America it will not be marked with a swastika; it will not even be called fascism; it will be called ‘Americanism.’

“The high-sounding phrase ‘the American way’ will be used by interested groups intent on profit...For never, probably, has there been a time when there was a more vigorous effort to surround social and international questions with such a fog of distortion and prejudice and hysterical appeal to fear.

“We have reached a new low in a congressional investigation...to whip up fear and prejudice against many causes of human welfare, such as a concern for peace and the rights of labor to bargain collectively.”

More recently, in the 2008 presidential campaign, when fundamentalist candidate Mike Huckabee emphasized his Christianity, libertarian Representative Ron Paul recalled Lewis’ line that fascism would come to America wrapped in a flag and “carrying a cross.”

Paul opposed the war in Iraq and the sharp increase in executive power and internal spying, the jailing without cause of people deemed as enemies. It is worth remembering here President Eisenhower’s farewell message to the nation in 1960, in which he warned

“against the unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”

Despite the end of the cold war, the American military, with the largest budget than the next 15 military powers combined, remains with corporate America, formidable - more powerful and dominant than they were 50 years ago and their “unwarranted influence” has never been seriously challenged. A fearful Congress has rarely challenged that “complex,” and I doubt that any president would survive such a challenge.

Finally, one of America’s leading thinkers, Noam Chomsky, who has been more right about America’s role in the world than most experts, told an audience of 1,000 in Madison, Wisconsin on April 12, that he recalls the rise of Hitler, who promised to restore order and prosperity in Germany. “I have the dread sense of the dark clouds of fascism gathering” here. “The level of anger and fear is like nothing I can compare in my lifetime.”

He sympathized with the frustrations of some the tea baggers who have seen their incomes decline while the recession deepened.

“The colossal toll of the institutional crimes of state capitalism,” he said, “is what is fueling the indignation and rage of those cast aside. They want answers. They are hearing answers from only one place, Fox, talk radio and Sarah Palin.”

But based on recent polls, the tea baggers, nearly all white, include mostly Republicans who, along with the blue collar, secessionist and openly racist lumpen proletariat, hate Obama for his color as well as is liberal programs.

They do not blame the corporate thievery and the policies of the last eight years for the recession and America’s debt. They do not challenge the military budget or the imprisonment of people in places like Guantanamo.

Rather, the tea parties are supported by corporate and Republican interests; many are fundamentalist Christians who carry their crusader shields against abortion, Darwin, gays, lesbians, and immigrants; they advocate carrying guns; they oppose as socialist or communist, government programs such as health care; and ardently support laws like one just passed in Arizona that permits - indeed, requires - police to stop anyone they deem suspicious to demand they produce papers proving that they are legal residents.

They don’t seem to realize or care that this is incipient fascism.

I’m reminded of those World War II melodramas in which the man from the Gestapo asks our hero, “Your papers please.” As Pogo warned many years ago, those who cry fascist these days have met the enemy and he is them.

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Estelle Davidson: The Runaway Collector

REFLECTIONS: My Companion, Cancer

SaulFriedman75x75 Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the twice-monthly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. His other column, Gray Matters, formerly published in Newsday, appears each Saturday.

Category_bug_reflections My wife and I were sitting in the very crowded oncologist’s office when I had this ugly thought. Everyone had come to check up on the treatment of their cancers. And I wondered - if there were a cure for cancer, the dozen doctors in the practice, their nurses, technicians, aides and receptionists would be out of work. Could it be possible that the cancer treating establishment is impeding a cure?

I am not a conspiracy nut, but it would not be the first time during my reporting and writing career that I have encountered money and cynicism in the cancer-fighting business.

Research to find treatments and a cure for breast cancer get twice as much money as prostate cancer, which kills as many men as breast cancer kills women. Lung cancer, the biggest killer, gets less. Why?

I’ve called the battle of the glands. The breast cancer lobby is more powerful and attractive than the prostate cancer lobby. There are too few lung cancer survivors to constitute a lobby and besides most lung cancers are blamed on the victims; they should not have been smoking.

On another occasion, when I was supervising a journalism seminar, one of my students learned that a North Carolina chapter of the American Cancer Society declined to take part in action against the tobacco industry and one of its largest companies because it was a mainstay of the local economy and had contributed to the chapter.

The American Cancer Society, one of the nation’s richest volunteer organizations, has been criticized for placing more emphasis on treatment than prevention and the possibility that the environment and chemicals are responsible for many cancers. But that begs the question, why can’t a cancer, even with a known cause, be eradicated, cured?

Having survived one cancer (esophageal) five years ago, I’m now dealing with another in my stomach as a kind of constant companion. And I find that nothing much seems to have changed. As science writer Curtis Brainard wrote in the April 12 Columbia Journalism Review,

“There’s a trope in medicine that doctors have only three ways of dealing with cancer-cutting (surgery), burning (radiation) and poisoning (chemotherapy).”

It’s true, as I’ve discovered, that surgical techniques have improved, but not everywhere; much depends on the surgeon. Radiation has its limits (I am no longer a candidate because I’ve had my full dose of radiation and doctors don’t want me to light up.) And chemo is, after all, poison that we hope will kill the cancer but not me.

In a sense, then, I feel that I’m being treated with primitive medicine in the 21st Century.

So it’s natural for a trained reporter – with or without cancer - to wonder why, 40 years after the U.S. put a man on the moon and 39 years after President Nixon called for a “war on cancer” and $200 billion spent on the war, a cure continues to elude us.

That expenditure, from government and private resources is a pittance compared to what we spend on bottomless, meaningless wars that kill but do not heal. Indeed, in too many cases and in too many places, cancer is the top killer, responsible for 7.4 million annual deaths world-wide. And 500,000 in the U.S.

To be sure, treatments have been successful in arresting the growth of cancers. Eighty percent of children stricken with leukemia used to die; now 80 percent survive. Similarly, 95 percent of testicular cancers were fatal; now the same percentage survives. Overall, the current five-year survival rate for all cancers is 65 percent compared to 50 percent 40 years ago.

That’s an important advance, but it’s not much of a leap (one percent per year). More important, the treatment may arrest cancer, but it cannot claim a cure. I survived a cancer for five years, but I wasn’t cured. We can claim survival and remission, but never a cure. A woman I know survived leukemia when she was a child, but she still has yearly checkups lest some stray cancer cells cause trouble.

How come there is no cure? Christopher Wanjek, writing last year in LiveScience explained that

“Part of the reason for having no cure is semantics. There will never be a single cancer cure because cancer refers to a family of more than 100 different diseases characterized by abnormal cell growth. These diseases arise from numerous causes, such as radiation, chemicals, or even viruses.”

But despite the knowledge, for example, that smoking causes cancer, we don’t yet know how. And even if we know the cause, we can treat, but not cure.“Most of the success,” said Wanjek, “is not from miracle cures but rather simple screening procedures such as pap smears and colonoscopies.”

But they don’t always work (my cancer was missed the first time) and at best, they find cancers at an early stage, when they can be cut, burned or poisoned but not cured.

According to the experts, there are some promising paths towards solving the mysteries of cancer: stem cell research, genetic research and even vaccines to treat and to prevent. Mark Roth, writing in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette April 7, reported that commercial vaccines to treat as well as prevent cancers may be in the offing.

He cited the present use of a vaccine, Gardasil, to prevent cervical cancer which can be caused by a virus. Soon, he wrote, the FDA is expected to approve a vaccine, Provenge, to treat prostate cancer that has spread.

And Roth quotes researchers as saying cancer vaccines may be on the verge of wider use. Columbia Journalism Review’s Brainard trashed Roth’s optimism, partly because Roth is not a science writer, but Brainard did little to report on possible advances toward a cure, including vaccines.

The literature I’ve read and the doctors I’ve talked to during my five years of dealing with cancer tells me this: Despite the presence of and substantial funding support for the National Cancer Institute, in Washington’s suburbs, there is no central coordination of effort to find a cure for cancer, or even learn if a cure or cures are possible.

The moon landing, accomplished in eight years, the Manhattan Project, successful in less than ten years, the eradication of malaria in the U.S., cures for tuberculosis and polio, were American accomplishments in the 20th century. I see no such effort focused on the most vicious killer, cancer.

You might say I have a vested interest in this. That would be wrong. Unless someone comes up with a magic bullet tomorrow, I will have to live with my constant companion and take my chemo and hope. But too many people, and some of whom you know, are suffering and dying around us.

I remember what it was like before and after Salk. I’d like my kids to experience that feeling, when the fear of a disease is lifted.

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Lyn Burnstine: Transcience

REFLECTIONS: The Midterm Elections

SaulFriedman75x75 Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the twice-monthly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. His other column, Gray Matters, formerly published in Newsday, appears each Saturday.

Category_bug_reflections I am about to go way, way out on a limb and suggest that Barack Obama and congressional Democrats may not fare as badly as many commentators predict in the midterm elections on November 2. I may be alone on that limb, but wouldn’t it be nice if I were right?

Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg fears a repeat of 1994 when his boss, Bill Clinton, lost the Congress to Newt Gingrich after his health care proposal was defeated. Nate Silver, the genius at Five Thirty Eight, figures Democrats will lose 20 to 50 House seats, but that’s down from his earlier prediction of 20 to 60 seats. And Greenberg sees a flickering of fresh Democratic enthusiasm.

I’m no genius, but I think they will be wrong and or they will further revise their predictions if, as I expect and hope, the economy continues to improve, and Obama, his White House and the Democrats ride the momentum of his unprecedented health care victory, with passage of a good jobs bill and financial regulatory reform, and aggressively take on Republican know-nothing obstructionism and vicious, racist Tea Party wingnuts.

Greenberg, Silver and nearly every commentator will cite the fact that since 1946, the president’s party has lost seats in the House and/or the Senate in every midterm election during his first term, save one. They cite one exception, 2002, when George W. Bush’s Republicans gained seats (eight in the House, two in the Senate) largely on the strength of support for the president following 9/11.

But there was one other important exception under circumstances similar to the tumult and controversy of Obama’s activist first term. That was in 1934, amid the Great Depression, two years into Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, which ended years of conservative Republican presidencies.

Despite Republican warning of the coming of “socialism,” charges that Roosevelt was a “traitor,” promises to repeal the tough new banking regulations and virulent opposition to Social Security, Democrats won nine seats each in the House and Senate.

The voters rejected a return to the party that had led them into economic catastrophe and the Democrats became the majority party. Republicans believe that today’s voters want to return to the policies that gave us the Great Recession, but I don’t think so.

As Time magazine reported April 2, the outlook for Democrats may not be as dire as in 1994 because the biggest advantage for the Democrats so far is the Republican Party under the clownish, incompetent Michael Steele, who can’t organize himself let alone the party faithful who would raise money, man phones, do the kind of scut work to get their vote out.

Nor does the Republican Party have a discernible leader who can rally the troops. Indeed, I’m not sure what remains of the Grand Old Party.

Another thing the pundits are missing is the crazy extremism of what passes for the disloyal opposition. As our best political philosophers have told us – from V.O. Key to Richard Hofstadter – the genius of the American political system is its centrism, its rejection of extremes – left or right.

The last time a politician told us that “extremism in defense of liberty” is a virtue, he and his party suffered a terrible defeat. But compared to today’s Republicans and their leaders, Barry Goldwater was a moderate who would not recognize what’s become of fellow Arizonans JohnMcCain and Jon Kyl, who vow to obstruct whatever their president tries to do.

Despite Obama’s centrism and his efforts to accommodate Republicans, they have clearly set out to destroy his presidency, opposing him in lock-step. They have used the filibuster more than 100 times, which is unprecedented, to block his proposals and nominees often for no reason. They have voted against his least controversial proposals. They have ridiculed him for not wearing a jacket in the Oval Office. They have characterized his health reforms as socialist, Marxist, communist and fascist, similar to the Nazi “final solution,” lying about what was in it.

They encouraged racist caricatures of Obama. They called the health bill “Armageddon,” the climactic biblical and mythological battle that comes at the end of time. They have encouraged secessionist threats. And when they lost on the health care vote, these Republican men and women who are well paid to do the public’s business, refused to work after 2PM, citing an obscure rule, and they shut down several committees in what one senator called a childish tantrum.

Their advocates and allies are certainly not moderate or centrist. Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly and their cohorts among the shock jocks can’t be called anything else but extremists as they encourage and publicize the so-called Tea Baggers and their latest darling, Sarah Palin, who made a lousy mayor and quit as Alaska’s governor to become a money-making charlatan with an empty head.

But what’s important to know is what they say they would do if they got a chance to govern. Even if they were unable to repeal the health care reforms, as they’ve promise, they would end Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. I do not exaggerate, that’s the stated plan of Republicans’ designated thinker, Representative Paul Ryan. And on Larry King, Tea Party leaders vowed “absolutely” to end Social Security.

The New York Times’ Timothy Egan writes,

“Do Republicans really want to campaign in favor of insurance companies’ right to drop people when they are sick?“

Maybe Republicans won’t, but the Tea Bag right would relish the opposition that would stir. In this political climate, Republicans may have to explain if one of their gun-toting, brick-throwing patriots hurts someone? I hope Obama and every Democrat makes this clear between now and November; this is no time for turning the other cheek.

Political organizer Robert Creamer, writing for Huffington Post, says Democrats must stay on the offensive, reminding voters of the Republican depression the country barely escaped. And the debate should be framed in the populist terms that the Tea Baggers seek to steal.

But while the unemployment rate has steadied, 15 to 25 million Americans are in need of full-time jobs – as engineers, construction workers and skilled laborers. It would help if Obama lifted another page from the New Deal and, as Bob Herbert suggested in The New York Times, propose or create job-creation measures like the Civilian Conservation Corps or the Works Progress Administration. Democrats have proposed such legislation, in which the federal government and the states would become the employers to rebuild the nation’s roads and bridges, schools and the neglected national parks.

It’s a long time between now and the elections and there are signs that the economy is improving. Unemployment seems to have steadied. The Dow-Jones average, a pretty good forecaster of what’s to come in six months, is nearing 11,000. A new Bloomberg poll reported that most Americans believe the worst of the recession and the financial meltdown are past.

If the most stubborn lagging indicator of recovery, job growth, were to show improvement, it’s doubtful voters would want to take a chance with a party led by Limbaugh, Palin, Beck and Tea Baggers.

They’ll have some explaining to do when it becomes clear that the passage of health reform was not, as Beck & Company predicted, “the end of the America as we know it,” or as House Republican Leader John Boehner had it, the end of time. It’s time for the Democrats to remind Republicans and their propagandists of their intemperate words and make them eat them.

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Linda Chaput: The Blacksmith's Wife

REFLECTIONS: Philandering

SaulFriedman75x75 Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the twice-monthly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. His other column, Gray Matters, formerly published in Newsday, appears each Saturday.

Category_bug_reflections Only a few of you may know the names Kay Summersby or Lucy Mercer. But I’ll bet most of you will recognize Gennifer Flowers or Monica Lewinsky.

These pairs of women are generations apart, but they speak to critical differences in those generations. Once we were a nation of understanding, and discreet, adults. Now we are a hypocritical society of YouTube voyeurs.

Once, we brought presidents to the brink of impeachment for matters of political principle, true high crimes and misdemeanors. Today’s members of the Congress – filled with miscreants, adulterers and worse, we now know – decided that someone else’s philandering was among the crimes worthy of impeachment.

Let me hasten to say that I am not excusing philandering or adultery by either sex, but recognizing that both are facts of human life. Indeed, the greatest heroes of our Bibles, the people who wrote the seventh commandment, engaged in adultery. A recent best-selling novel questions Christ’s celibacy.

As Christopher Hitchens writes in an essay on the commandments in the April Vanity Fair, despite the biblical admonitions, adultery was and “continues to be a great source of misery and joy and fascination...It (adultery) perhaps does not deserve to be classed with murder, theft or perjury.”

If that were the case (as charged against Bill Clinton) the men who took essentially the same oath as Clinton (to uphold the laws) would be or should be standing trial –Governor Mark Sanford, Senator John Ensign, Eliot Spitzer, Rudolph Giuliani, Newt Gingrich, Mark Foley, Larry Craig, John Edwards. All of them betrayed the public trust if not their oaths.

But here is an essential difference among most of them; their lovers, with few exceptions, couldn’t keep their liaisons to themselves. They did more than kiss-and-tell. They went to publicists knowing full well their stories might ruin the man with whom they had had sex.

Lewinsky, the most tawdry of them all, saved a semen stained dress as proof of her encounter with Clinton so she could cash in on the publicity. The wonder is that Clinton had the poor taste to choose someone like her who, in more ways than one, couldn’t keep her mouth shut. Maybe his poor judgment should have been the impeach able offense.

Similarly, Ensign is charged with having tried to pay off the husband of the woman with whom he, Ensign, was having an affair. The husband, a member of the senator’s staff, threatened to (and finally did) go to the press.

Spitzer’s lady, a call girl known as Kristen now running for office, was really Ashley Dupre, who bared herself and humiliated Spitzer via MySpace after Spitzer resigned.

And although Edwards was out of office, consider the conduct of his liaison, Rielle Hunter, posing for sexually provocative photos with the child Edwards now acknowledges. Questions: What sort of mother is she? What sort of judgment did Edward demonstrate in choosing this person?

Consider the case of the aforementioned Kay Summersby, the Irish daughter of a of a retired British army officer who was in her thirties when she joined the British Mechanised Transport Corp and drove an ambulance during the blitz. In 1942, she was assigned to drive Major General Dwight Eisenhower, who eventually got five stars and became the European Commander.

With Eisenhower’s help, Summersby became an American citizen and a driver in the Women’s Army Corps. Although the men close to Eisenhower must have known something, not until years later – in her second memoir in 1975 after Ike’s death – did Summersby confirm that she did have an affair with her boss during the years 1942-1945. Summersby had been married and divorced when she met Eisenhower and in 1952, when Ike ran for the presidency, she remarried her ex-husband, a stockbroker and lived quietly on Long Island until she died of cancer in 1975, the year her tell-all memoir was published.

Sure, Eisenhower was not yet president when they their affair. But had Summersby flaunted their relationship, he could have been embarrassed, even relieved of command, which would have been disastrous for the European war effort. President Truman, who learned of their affair, did intervene to save Eisenhower’s marriage. Reporters, if they knew of the relationship, like Summersby, did what was expected in those days - they said nothing.

Similarly, Lucy Page Mercer, from prominent Maryland and Virginia families, was hired by Eleanor Roosevelt as her personal secretary in 1913. In 1918, Eleanor discovered through love letters her husband’s affair with Mercer. And although Eleanor gave her husband an ultimatum never to see her again, Lucy Mercer was with FDR when he collapsed and died in Warm Springs, Georgia, on April 12, 1945.

But it was not until 1966, in a memoir written by a Roosevelt aide, that the romance confirmed. Lucy Mercer Rutherford, who was married to a New York socialite when she spent time with Roosevelt, never spoke of their relationship. She died of leukemia in 1948.

Since Thomas Jefferson’s liaisons with one of his slaves, Sally Hemmings (which some historians deny), presidents or would-be presidents have had affairs. A woman named Nan Britton claimed to have been one of Warren Harding’s mistresses, but she waited until four years after his death. John F. Kennedy is strongly alleged to have had a record number of mistresses for his time in office, including Marilyn Monroe.

There is a story, which I know to be true, that Lyndon Johnson came to the bed of a guest at his ranch one night and told her, “This is Your president.” She resisted his advances. And the sainted Ronald Reagan was having an affair with Nancy Davis when he was married to Jane Wyman.

Who is to be condemned for these relationships? Brilliant, complex political leaders like Roosevelt have what I call self-winding egos that need reassurance wherever they can get it - especially if, like Roosevelt, they bear almost superhuman burdens. Ike, I think, needed Summersby to get through a time when he was responsible for so many lives and nothing less than the destiny of Europe.

The women they chose were not FaceBook bimbos and I would suggest they were more liberated in their time than those who seek their 15 minutes of shame.

One more provocative thought. I think I’d prefer a president who is sexually satisfied. But I would hope he or she would pick a partner worthy of the office.

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Lyn Burnstine: What I Know About Joy

REFLECTIONS: On Being Too Nice

SaulFriedman75x75 Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the twice-monthly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. His other column, Gray Matters, formerly published in Newsday, appears each Saturday.

Category_bug_reflections Watching this Democratic Congress wasting our time reminds me of when I first became aware that what often ails American liberalism are liberals.

I was sitting in the Senate Press Gallery some years ago watching the floor action on a minor issue now obscured in my memory. I do remember that the protagonists were a liberal senator from Maryland, Joseph Tydings, from a distinguished political family, and Louisiana’s Russell Long, from a more infamous political heritage; he looked exactly like his father, Huey.

All I can recall is that Long, a conservative Democrat who called himself the “oil senator” (‘hell, I even use Vaseline in my hair”) and who had been in the Senate since 1948, out-maneuvered whatever it was that Tydings was trying to do and sent him from the floor frustrated. One of my colleagues had it right when he said, “Tydings is just too nice.”

That didn’t much matter back then; politics then was mostly civil. But recalling that now got me wondering if too many liberals are too nice for today’s highly partisan, ideological political wars.

Liberals, by nature, rarely have been as aggressive as committed conservatives who are passionate defenders of our brand of capitalism. And Marx criticized liberals because they were part of system but sought to save it by ameliorating its worst excesses.

Nevertheless, many liberal-voting Democrats today are timid about being called liberal while Republicans clamor to be labeled conservative, which was a pejorative not too many years ago. Those Democrats who are proudly liberal, like Representatives Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, Alan Grayson of Florida and Freshman Senator Al Franken of Minnesota, are considered by colleagues to be too far out or too outspoken.

And if a liberal Democrat shows some toughness, like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi who has been disappointed with Obama’s endless search for the mirage of bipartisanship, she’s criticized as being imperious or worse (rhymes with witch).

A senator friend a few years ago analyzed for me why liberals may indeed be considered too nice or soft: Almost by definition, he said, a liberal tends to be more introspective than a conservative, questioning his or her positions, giving weight to the possibility that he or she may be wrong and that the opposing position may have merit.

Thus, liberals seek to reach out to conservatives, even when they get their hands bitten off to a stump. Sound like a president you know? But liberal leaders in Congresses past weren’t always such pushovers.

I was in Texas when I began covering Congress, when it was run by a pair of Texans, Sam Rayburn, the House Speaker for 17 years and his political son and protege, Lyndon Johnson, the Senate Majority

Leader. Both were yellow-dog Democrats, loyal to the New Deal and Harry Truman’s Fair Deal. Here’s an example of their tough-minded liberalism. In 1956, despite panicky pleas from colleagues, they refused to sign the so-called Southern Manifesto denouncing the Supreme Court’s school desegregation ruling.

Rayburn’s mantra for members was said to be, “go along to get along,” and in those days the speaker had more powers than today. But Rayburn’s personal integrity became obvious when he died of cancer in 1961. His estate amounted to $15,000 plus his ranch in Bonham, Texas, where he was born. But his power also derived from his commitment to his party, his politics and his personal style.

At Rayburn’s “Board of Education,” the after-session meetings in one of his rooms in the Capitol where there were drinks, poker and politics, members and the leadership laid out strategy and dealt with the problems of members, promising help on tough votes or threatening punishment if a member strayed unnecessarily. It was considered an honor to be invited to a “board” meeting. Here was utilitarianism in real time: “Self interest rightly understood.”

Lyndon Johnson, a member of the House and an ardent New Dealer since he came to the House in 1937, became a senator in 1949 (with Truman’s upset victory) and in his second term, in 1954, he became Senate Majority Leader, probably the most powerful and influential in history.

He and Rayburn helped President Eisenhower pass his domestic agenda, including the 1957 Civil Rights Act, and the building of the interstate highway system with money from gasoline taxes. Johnson helped keep Eisenhower out of Vietnam. But the two Texans laid the political foundation for the Democratic victories of 1958 and 1960.

Johnson was said to be the greatest gatherer of intelligence on every member of the Senate, understanding their states, their political and personal needs. His Senate allies included a powerhouse of liberal legislators including John F. Kennedy, Paul Douglas, Albert Gore, Sr., Stuart Symington, Mike Mansfield, J. William Fulbright, Henry (Scoop) Jackson, William Proxmire, who had replaced Joe McCarthy, and Hubert Humphrey who was ostracized by southerners for his civil rights stands but adopted as a Johnson protege.

Johnson’s power and the liberal Democrats’ clout were further enhanced when the elections of 1958 brought in a post-war wave of more than a dozen feisty liberals who gave lie to those who believe today’s dithering, dishwater Democrats are representative of liberalism. Among them: Ernest Gruening and Bob Bartlett, the first senators from Alaska; Thomas Dodd, Connecticut; Philip Hart, Michigan; Ed Muskie of Maine; Jennings Randolph of West Virginia; and Gale McGee of Wyoming.

These Democrats, for 30 years, into the presidencies of John Kennedy and Johnson, gave the nation the most liberal legislative accomplishments since the New Deal, much of which the current crop of Democrats don’t seem able to defend even from a minority of Republican crackpots. Starting with their leader, the president, they seem to run for cover at the slightest rustle of dissent.

Democrats and liberals should get real: Sarah Palin is an empty, ignorant demagogue; Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh are clowns who can be challenged but aren’t. I can understand why Republicans fear them, but when will the Democrats and liberals really take on these liars who are so far to the right of either Barry Goldwater or Ronald Reagan that they would be appalled?

Tom Dodd’s son, Chris, has virtually been run out of office and still runs from the bank lobbyists and Republicans rather than drive financial regulation through his committee.

New York’s Charles Schumer was quick to desert Attorney General Eric Holder’s constitutionally correct decisions to try terrorists in civilian courts.

In Indiana, Evan Bayh, the son of John Kennedy’s close pal, Birch Bayh, quivers at the possibility that health reforms may include a public option that would hurt his wife’s finances, then quits because the going is too tough in the center and endangers the party that has given him sustenance.

And the man who holds Johnson’s post, among this group of tough-minded liberals, many of whom had been in the war, Harry Reid, does not seem to know how to wield the power he has. I heard a commentator say, “He’s too nice.” Maybe.

A truly nice, professorial guy, Mike Mansfield, replaced Johnson but he was effective because the liberal cadre of Democrats in the Senate supported him. Reid is the “majority leader” but he complains that a majority of 59 is not enough - but even 60 did not seem enough either to keep the Republicans from running over him.

In Johnson’s day, one needed 67 votes to end a filibuster but it was rarely used except to bar civil rights legislation. Still, LBJ would not have put up with obstructionism, especially from Democrats. Democrats like Reid and Lincoln complain they’re in tough races; maybe if they showed some spine, their voters would respond. I can’t blame voters who don’t know what their Senators believe. There was no mistaking what LBJ stood for.

Perhaps I’ve gone on too long criticizing today’s “pathetic liberals,” as my favorite commentator, Chris Hedges, calls them. Maybe that shoe belongs on the presidential foot, but I hesitate to call Barack Obama a liberal; he seems proud that he’s not ideological.

Those of us who have sense know he’s not a socialist, which is too bad. But is he a liberal? I don’t think he knows, although he sounded like one in the campaign. But if so, he acts like the softie, dithering liberal LBJ would not have liked.

How else to explain it when he praises right-wing Republican Representative Paul Ryan for being as person with “ideas” when they include privatizing Social Security and ending Medicare? Or when Obama says the obscene salaries of the bankers who screwed us were okay because it was part of our free enterprise system. As Paul Krugman remarked, “Oh God...we’re doomed.”

Said Hedges, in a December 7, 2009 essay posted on Alternet:

“The gravest danger we face as a nation is not from the far right, although it may well inherit power but from a bankrupt liberal class that has lost the will to fight and the moral courage to stand up for what it espouses.”

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Jeanne Waite Follett: Leaving Windows Open