Friday, January 30, 2009

Heading Off to the Land Down Under

Posts may be intermittent over the next two weeks because I’m off to Australia tomorrow (Saturday) morning for some serious train travel: east-to-west, Sydney to Perth; then north-to-south, Darwin to Adelaide.

I’ll stay in touch with all the news via the internet when there’s access, and will post when I can. Back to Maui on February 15, with a return to what passes for normal shortly thereafter.


The Incredible Shrinking (Ex) President

With a new president in the White House, we’ve been getting a number of stories about his way of doing things. That, in turn, invites comparison with his predecessor.

There’s an AP story in The Maui News this morning which notes that Barack Obama appears to be running his White House a bit more casually than George W. Bush did.

The story notes that on occasion, some of Obama’s meetings have actually run over their allotted times. Bush, on the other hand, insisted that his meetings begin and end on time.

In fact – and how did I manage to miss this before now! – on one occasion, then Secretary of State Colin Powell was late for a cabinet meeting and Bush had the door locked so Powell couldn’t get in!

Well, by God, that sure showed everyone who was boss!

Actually, once the outrage and indignation passes, it seems rather pathetic, doesn’t it.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Looks Like Everyone is Doing What They Do Best

During the campaign, Barack Obama repeatedly said he would work to end the bitter partisanship that has divided this country for many years.

Tuesday, President Obama took the unprecedented step of going up to the Hill to meet with Republicans to look for ways both parties could come together in support of his stimulus package.

Yesterday, every single Republican member of the House voted against it. All 188 of them.

And today they have the unmitigated gall to say that vote was evidence of their desire to be “non-partisan.”

Am I an idiot? Are you an idiot? Are we a nation of idiots?

Evidently the Republicans think so.


Wednesday, January 28, 2009

A little bit of the Aloha Spirit would have been nice.

Back during the presidential campaign, Hawaii’s Republican governor, Linda Lingle, made several trips to the mainland to campaign for the McCain/You-Know-Who ticket.
At the time, she had some pretty snide things to say about Barack Obama … among other things, that he hadn’t lived here long enough to really be considered local.

(Let the record show Obama was born here and graduated from high school here, while Lingle was born in St. Louis and went to high school in California.)

Anyway, this past Monday, toward the end of her annual State of the State address to the Legislature, Lingle said “… Hawaii’s heart swelled with pride as one of its own, Barack Obama, became the first African American to take the presidential oath of office…”

She could have tempered the hypocrisy and shown some class by saying “as one of our own …” but, nah, that’s just not her style.

Monday, January 26, 2009

If You Have to Ask What It Costs, You Can’t Afford It.

This is the Kahului Airport here on Maui, and those are all private jets. How rich do you have to be to afford one of those things, anyway?

And what could better illustrate the gap – no, the chasm! – between rich and poor in this country.

I had doctor’s appointment a couple of days ago and struck up a conversation with a woman in the waiting room. She told me she and her husband have the same medical problem and take the same medication for it. They each have jobs but, she said, they can’t afford medication for both of them. So they fill one prescription a month and carefully cut the pills in half, each taking what amounts to half the prescribed daily dose.

What does that lady have to do with all those private jets? Hell, I don’t know. Maybe nothing. But isn’t there something fundamentally wrong when some people have so much they can fly to Maui on private airplanes while people living here have to split their pills in half? Sooner or later, we have to do something about that.

No, not later … sooner!

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Same Old Story: Big Guys Win, Little Guys Lose.

The plight of newspapers in this country is disturbing. People have instant access to news now from the internet, most of it free. It's a phenomenon which newspapers were slow to recognize and even slower in their attempts to counter.

Jim Hightower puts out a neat little newsletter every month called the Hightower Lowdown and recounts a sad tale about the problems of one of America’s great papers in the January issue. It’s about The Tribune Company, which owns a number of the country’s leading newspapers – the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, the Baltimore Sun among others – plus 23 television stations. Oh yes, and the Chicago Cubs baseball club, too.

A year ago, Chicago real estate zillionaire Sam Zell bought the Tribune Company for more than $8 billion … that’s billion, with a “B”. Well, actually, he sort of bought it. Zell put up a relatively small amount of his own cash and borrowed the rest from the ever-helpful bankers.

But here’s the catch: As part of the deal, Zell talked The Tribune Company’s CEO into letting him use the employee pension fund as collateral.

Meanwhile, the Chicago Tribune newspaper was already getting squeezed. The economy had tightened, advertisers were cutting back, etcetera, etcetera. Ever the businessman, Zell went right to work. Newsroom staff was laid off, the paper reduced content and other cost cutting steps were taken.

But it wasn’t enough. The verable Chicago Tribune went bankrupt.

As usual, the little guys get screwed. Employees have lost their jobs and more will undoubtedly follow. And critical safety nets like severance pay and pensions are probably gone, too.

Zell lost some money, too, although for him it amounted to chump change because so much of the purchase price had been borrowed.

But, here's the kicker: According to Hightower, the CEO who helped Zell engineer that sweetheart deal got $40 million for his efforts. Citigroup and Merrill Lynch were a part of this and they got $36 million each for being "advisors." Morgan Stanley was paid $7.5 million for generating an "opinion" that sanctioned the deal.

These are the guys who got billions in bail out money from the Bushies. Makes you feel all warm and fuzzy, doesn't it?

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Amost Back to What Passes for Political Normalcy

Little by little, things are shaking out and settling down. Barack Obama is now our president, Roland Burris is officially the junior senator from Illinois, and Al Franken is almost the new senator from Minnesota. Almost. The very latest re-re-re-count has him ahead of Norm Coleman by something like 225 votes.

Coleman is packing up his stuff and vacating his Washington office, but is still talking lawsuit. And the right-wing radio and internet crazies – Rush Limbaugh, John Hawkins, Ann Coulter, et al – are screaming their heads off that the Democrats are stealing that election.

My knee-jerk reaction was, of course, SO HOW DOES IT FEEL??

But the whole idea is preposterous anyway. From the moment it became clear that a recount would have to be done, the five-person Minnesota Canvassing Board has handled everything in a methodical, careful, dignified manner without the slightest suggestion of partisanship … to their very great credit.

But take a look at how that panel breaks out: Two of its members are justices of the Minnesota Supreme Court. Both are Republicans and both were appointed by Tim Pawlenty, Minnesota’s Republican governor who was on John McCain's short list for running mate. Another Board member was appointed by Jesse Ventura, who ran and was elected governor as an independent. The fourth member is another judge who ran and was elected as a non-partisan. The last one is Minnesota’s Secretary of State who is indeed a Democrat.

Does that sound like five people who are stealing an election for the Democrats and Al Franken? Not hardly.

I must ask again: How can anyone continue to take Limbaugh and the rest of those bloviating frauds seriously?


Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Senator John Cornyn: Poster Boy for Petty Politics

Who would have thought that on Inauguration Day – not just any Inauguration Day, but on this unique and historic Inauguration Day – a thoughtless bozo in a position of public trust would choose to piss on the parade.

Texas Senator John Cornyn – and, yes, of course he’s a Republican – says he will vote against confirming Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State ... thereby sucking up to his far-right political base.

But all it really did was prevent Hillary’s confirmation today by “unanimous consent” and delay formal action on her nomination for 24 hours. There will be a roll call vote in the Senate tomorrow and she will pass overwhelmingly.

Was it too much to expect that a clown like Cornyn would refrain from snotty, petty, partisan politics just for this one special, historic day?

Evidently so.

Monday, January 19, 2009

It Can Be Interesting – and Sobering – to Play ‘What If’

I can remember, as a kid of 7 or 8, carefully cutting the tops and bottoms from tin cans, slipping them into the cylinder that remained and then flattening it all out by stomping on it. Billions of cans were thus recycled into tanks and planes and guns ... just one of many ways Americans supported the war effort during World War Two. Everyone was involved. Even little kids.

David Broder is a veteran and respected political reporter. In a recent Washington Post column, he suggested that George W. Bush’s greatest failure was in not asking Americans to sacrifice anything in support of the war in Iraq. (Far from having to sacrifice, we actually got tax cuts while $10 billion a month was being pumped into that conflict.)

Broder makes an interesting point and it certainly begs the question: What if Bush had addressed the nation back in February of 2003 and said the following:

“Fellow Americans, we’re going to go into Iraq to get rid of Saddam Hussein and bring democracy to the Iraqi people. This is a noble and necessary effort, and to pay for it, there will be a 10% surcharge added to everyone’s federal income tax bill until we win and our troops come home.”

What if he had done that?

Would we have gone into Iraq in the first place?

And would we still be in Iraq today?

Saturday, January 17, 2009

‘The Nine’ Gets an Enthusiastic Rating of 10

I have just finished a book called The Nine by Jeffrey Toobin that will be a fascinating read no matter where one sits on the political spectrum.

This is an amazing account of how members of a small, extreme conservative clique targeted the U.S. Supreme Court as far back at the late 90s. Their entire raison d’etre was to engineer presidential appointments to the court of “reliable” conservative jurists … judges who would vote the “right way” on the only two issues that really matter to those folks: abortion and the power of the executive.

The politics of this whole effort is fascinating. These conservative republicans effectively sabotaged the Supreme Court nominees of their own party’s president. For instance, they headed off Bush’s anticipated nomination to the high court of Alberto Gonzales (obviously, this was well before Gonzales was forced to resign under pressure). And you’ll really shake your head when you read about how they scuttled W’s infamous nomination of Harriet Miers.

The book is an astonishing look at the personalities and the politics of all the justices, but especially of Antonin Scalia, William Rehnquist, Clarence Thomas and Sandra Day O’Connor, who was the pivotal vote on many of the Court’s more significant decisions for more than a decade. (A life-long Republican, she was contemptuous ot the Bush Administration, by the way.)

There is a particularly fascinating portion that deals with the 2000 presidential election and the Court’s decision in Bush vs. Gore. (This is the section that really gave me heartburn!) One justice, David Souter, was so distressed at what he felt were the crude partisanship of the court’s 5-4 decision giving the election to Bush, that he seriously considered resigning.

I doubt there has ever been such a detailed look at what goes on inside the Court. It is an amazing read and I recommend it … especially to others like me who believe the Supreme Court of the United States should be above politics.


Friday, January 16, 2009

We’re Number One! We’re Number One!

It used to take a long time for the latest trends and technologies to reach Hawaii.

Not that long ago, the CBS Evening News was televised in New York at 6:00 p.m. eastern time and recorded simultaneously by the CBS station in Los Angeles. The tape was then hustled out to LAX and put on a plane for Honolulu so we could all watch Walter Cronkite at 10:00 p.m. Hawaii time. Most folks here just assumed it was "live" and were never the wiser.

That’s all changed, and Hawaii is now on the cutting edge of many things – new technologies, tropical fashion, regional cuisine … even the nurturing of presidents.

Yesterday, a month before the rest of the country, our television stations made the conversion to all-digital. This came, of course, after a good five or six months of constant reminders on radio and TV and in the print media.

Still, according to an AP story in this morning’s newspaper, “hundreds of Hawaii television viewers called for help Thursday …”

I guess these folks must all been out surfing. Hey ... first things first!


Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Doing Nothing is Simply Not An Option

The House voted today to renew a program of federally funded health insurance for children. These are kids in working families making too much money to qualify for Medicaid, but not enough to afford private coverage. The new bill also expands the program to include some 4 million additional kids. This is essentially the same bill that Bush, the "compassionate conservative", vetoed last year. Twice.

The vote in the House was overwhelming in favor, but 139 Republicans still voted against it. I’d sure like to hear what one of those 139 people offered as an argument against health insurance for poor kids. No doubt it was the cost to us taxpayers. Well, that's baloney!

Parents with no family health insurance wait until the poor kids are really sick, then take them to their local hospital’s emergency room. They certainly can’t pay that bill, which is a helluva lot higher than a simple preventative office visit would have been. But somebody has to pay, so the hospitals spread the cost around in the form of inflated charges to ER patients who do have insurance. That, in turn, forces the insurance companies to increase the premiums they charge all the rest of us. Talk about a vicious circle!

The plain hard fact is that when it comes to health insurance, the most expensive option by far is to do nothing.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Final Score: Franken 2, Coulter 0

YouTube and a few other sites are running a wonderful video clip from a couple of years ago – a political forum featuring Ann Coulter and Al Franken who, of course, are polar opposites politically.

The provocative question posed to each: If you could come back as an historical figure, who would it be and what would you do differently?

Coulter, ever the extreme right-wing ideologue, said she would come back as Franklin Roosevelt so she could not introduce the New Deal.

Franken said he would come back as Hitler which, of course, caused a stir in the audience. Then he turned to Coulter and said, “You get to call off the New Deal, I’d call off the holocaust.”

The audience applauded as Coulter sat stone-faced and said … nothing.

Then Franken added, “But I’d keep the Volkswagen”, generating a big laugh from the crowd.

It’s really going to be fun having Al Franken in the Senate!

Friday, January 9, 2009

Fear Not ... Walter Cronkite’s Legacy Is Safe

It’s always been a mystery to me that the purveyors of blather on conservative talk shows are so seldom called to account for their misstatements and garbled facts.

Several years ago, before he became a politician, Al Franken recruited a team of political science graduate students to do a fact check on Rush Limbaugh. The results were so pervasive and so damning that it’s astonishing to me that anyone still takes that arrogant blowhard seriously.
Limbaugh regularly calls to mind an old Peanuts comic strip, in which one of the characters – probably Lucy – says, “If you can’t be right, be wrong at the top of your voice!”

The right-wing media stamp their feet and demand to be taken seriously … and then say or do things that continue to make them a laughingstock.

Case in point: The conservative web site PajamasTV has hired a new "reporter" who will go to Israel and provide us all with the truth about what’s going on in Gaza.

The name of this foreign correspondent is Samuel Wurzelbacher, aka Joe the Plumber!



(still waiting)

OK, now that you’ve stopped laughing, let me ask a serious question: How could we ever have lost elections to these people??

Thursday, January 8, 2009

It’s Different Now, But It Was Better Then

An item in yesterday’s Maui News caught my attention. Members of a local high school girls basketball team, playing as the visiting team in another school’s gym, were reduced to tears by the heckling they were getting from a dozen boys in the stands. I gather from the news accounts, some of it was pretty raw. And apparently no one told them to shut up.

That brought back memories of a basketball game at my old prep school back on the east coast. The score was tied mid-way through the second half when one of the visiting players was fouled and went to the free throw line. Believe it or not, it was custom back then for the spectators to remain quiet while players of either team concentrated and prepared to take their free throws.

Anyway, the kid stared at the basket, bounced the ball a couple of times, and took his first shot. Just before he let the ball go, someone in the crowd let out a whoop, obviously trying to rattle him. The ball hit the rim and bounced away.

Immediately – and I do mean immediately – our school’s coach, who was also the athletic director, let out with a piercing whistle and marched out to the middle of the court. His name was Ralph Erickson and he was both loved and feared by all who knew him, students and faculty alike. Hands on hips and red-faced, Ralph did a slow, complete turn, fixing every corner of that gym with a terrifying glare. There was not a sound throughout the building.

Then he turned to the referee and directed that the youngster be permitted to take the shot over. He did but, for the life of me, I can’t remember if he made the shot or not. Nor can I remember which team won the game.

But I do remember that several hundred people got a lesson in sportsmanship from Ralph Erickson that afternoon.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Why There Was No Room In America’s Inn

Blair House is America’s official guest room, the place where guests of our presidents are invited to stay when coming to Washington. It’s located literally across the street from the White House and is part of the same secure zone.

Perhaps, like me, you’ve wondered why the Obamas, after moving out of their home in Chicago, were not able to stay at Blair House in these weeks leading up to the January 20th inauguration. When the question was first raised, the Bush people said only that there was a prior commitment. But who would be so important as to be given precedence over the president-elect and his family?

Well, the dog in our manger turns out to be the former Prime Minister of Australia, John Howard, who will be in Washington and in Blair House for one night because President Bush is presenting him with the Medal of Freedom for his no-questions-asked support of Bush’s War on Terror. (It is probably also worth mentioning that some months ago Mr. Howard said that al Qaeda would be praying for Obama’s election.)

As a result, the Obamas have been moved into the Hay Adams Hotel. It’s more than comfortable, of course, but the massive security restrictions set up there have caused inconvenience-to-the-max for all other hotel guests and nightmarish traffic congestion in the surrounding area. And let us not forget the huge additional expense all of this extra security is costing the American taxpayers.

Why are we not surprised that it’s all going to end pretty much the way it’s been from the beginning: with pettiness and misplaced priorities. Well, the time has come to say aloha … which in this case definitely means good-by!

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Health Care in the US … More Than A Crisis, A Disgrace!

The News Hour on PBS is now doing a multi-part feature about health care. Watch it.

Last night’s installment featured a young couple in their 30s with two small kids, who could very well be next-door neighbors. They are, in other words, hard-working, middle-class, responsible, and modest in their lifestyle.

But they’re in a jam.

Both husband and wife have medical problems requiring surgery. He’s the breadwinner, but has been going to work each day fearing an attack that could potentially be fatal. She cares for their two small children while dealing with frequent bouts of pain and nausea from a gall bladder problem.

Their health insurance costs $800 a month, a huge bite out of the family budget. Even so, with deductibles and co-pays, they haven’t got the money to pay for both procedures.

So they have decided the husband should get the surgery since his problem appears to be more serious. She’s going to tough it out.

What must it be like for each of them, living with that decision?

More to the point, how can the rest of us live with a situation that forces friends and neighbors to make decisions like that? Shouldn’t we all expect more from “the greatest nation on earth”?

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Take A Generic Pain Killer and Call Me In The Morning.

It’s a brand new year, and today I got a small taste of what’s in store when I went to my local pharmacy to refill a 30-day supply of one of the prescriptions I take daily.

From last year to this – meaning from last week to this week – the amount of my co-pay went up from $30 to $38. That’s a 26.6 percent bump.

At the same time, the annual cost of my AARP drug plan has increased from $336 to $415.20 … up 23.6 percent.

I suppose that’s because the cost for 30-days worth of this particular drug went up from $188.41 to $206.58 ... an increase of 'only' 9.7 percent.

The implications don’t stop there, either, because the higher the cost of the drug, the sooner I’ll get to the infamous “donut-hole” when the insurance quits and I start paying 100% of the cost.

And there's more: Next week I go back for a refill on a new anti-cholesterol medication my doc has put me on. The monthly co-pay for that in 2008 was $110. I can’t wait to see what it’s going to be this year!

I may bitch and moan about this but, if I suck it up a little, I can still afford to pay for the medications I need.

But what about those who can’t? What do they do?

We – as a nation – have damn well got to come to grips with this.


Friday, January 2, 2009

Harry Truman: A Very Uncommon Common Man

I've made two visits to the Truman Library in Independence, Missouri, and, in my opinion, it's a must-see for anyone interested in our country's history.

After stepping into Franklin Roosevelt’s huge shoes, Harry Truman had to make some of the toughest decisions ever facing a U.S. president. But you come away from the Library with a sense that he was truly a rare kind of man.

When Truman died, his only asset was the house he owned in Independence, and it had been inherited by his wife from her mother. No five-figure speaking fees for Harry!

Back in 1971, Congress proposed to recognize Truman on the occasion of his 87th birthday by awarding him the Congressional Medal of Honor. Truman declined, saying “I don’t consider that I have done anything which should be the reason for any award, Congressional or otherwise.”

Much criticized while in office, this country has finally come to realize what a great president he was.


Thursday, January 1, 2009

Ring out the old, ring in the new,

Ring, happy bells, across the snow:

The year is going, let him go;

Ring out the false, ring in the true.

- Alfred, Lord Tennyson