Archive for June, 2009

‘Welcome to Your White House’

Tuesday, June 30th, 2009

Growing up, I thought the New York Times’ slogan, “All the News That’s Fit to Print,” was sort of like that ad for the Yellow Pages: If it’s out there, it’s in here.

It’s hard to imagine a more far-flung network of news gatherers. Today’s paper alone has staff reports from Mexico City, Moscow, Hanoi, Jerusalem, Buenos Aires, Bogota, Cairo, London, Stellenbosch, and Durango, Colorado. And that’s before you even get to the National Report.

And yet there I was in a class a few days ago, discussing the Jewish thinker Soloveitchik, and the professor, Moshe Berger, points out that there is something unintended and much darker about the newspaper’s slogan. It doesn’t just imply breadth, as I’d always heard it. It also implies judgment and subjectivity: There is some news that is not fit to print in these pages.

News of the Holocaust, for example, Professor Berger said. Or, more recently, news that would have contradicted the official White House version of WMD’s in Iraq, in the run-up to war.

To this list we can add: news of the Stonewall riots in Grenwich Village, 40-years ago today, which launched the gay rights movement.

“I didn’t know a single person, student or teacher, male or female, in my entire Ivy League university who was openly identified as gay [in the 1960s],” Frank Rich wrote in his New York Times column Sunday, adding:

And though my friends and I were obsessed with every iteration of the era’s political tumult, we somehow missed the Stonewall story. Not hard to do, really. The Times — which would not even permit the use of the word gay until 1987 — covered the riots in tiny, bowdlerized articles, one of them but three paragraphs long, buried successively on pages 33, 22, and 19.

On that hot, humid night in 1969, police raided the Stonewall, a gay bar — one of the few places gay men and women could congregate without being harassed — ostensibly for selling liquor without a license. Normally, when such raids occurred, people would just submit or disperse quietly. On this night, they fought back, some 400 people in all, many attempting to stop the cops from making arrests.

An AP story explains:

Four police officers were injured, including one with a broken wrist, according to the Times, which described the scene as a “rampage” by hundreds of young men. Thirteen people were arrested that first night on charges including harassment, disorderly conduct, and resisting arrest, the story says.

Today, President Obama marked the anniverary of Stonewall with an official ceremony, a “presidential first,” as the Washington Post noted, telling gays, lesbians, bisexual, and transgender Americans: “Welcome to your White House.”

Obama has been fairly criticized by the gay community for failing to act on his campaign promise to repeal the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” rule on gays in the military, and because his administration is strongly backing a legal challenge to the Defense of Marriage Act.

Speaking directly to the community today, Obama acknowledged his critics. The quote below is from the official White House transcript:

And I know that many in this room don’t believe that progress has come fast enough, and I understand that.  It’s not for me to tell you to be patient, any more than it was for others to counsel patience to African Americans who were petitioning for equal rights a half century ago.

But I say this:  We have made progress and we will make more.  And I want you to know that I expect and hope to be judged not by words, not by promises I’ve made, but by the promises that my administration keeps.  And by the time you receive — (applause.)  We’ve been in office six months now.  I suspect that by the time this administration is over, I think you guys will have pretty good feelings about the Obama administration.  (Applause.) 

My sense is, as Rich wrote, that Obama is moving slowly on gay rights because his is surrounded by alumni from the Clinton administration, who were badly burned when implementing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Obama “doesn’t want to risk gay issues upending his presidency.”

In the meantime, 40-years after Stonewall, a whole class of Americans just like you and me remain second class citizens, subjected daily to discrimination sanctioned by the law of the land.

Republicans and Hot Air

Sunday, June 28th, 2009

Remember during the election, when conservatives mocked Obama for this line in his stump speech: “I am absolutely certain that generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children … this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal”?

(On June 4, 2008, to refresh your memory with just one example, Commentary’s blog ran this headline as Alarming News: “Obama to lower ocean levels and heal planet. No, really.”)

Well, don’t look now. On Friday, we woke to the news that for the first time in history, the U.S. House of Representatives, thanks to Obama’s leadership, passed a bill that would seriously begin to address global warming.

As the New York Times writes:

The vote was the first time either house of Congress had approved a bill meant to curb the heat-trapping gases scientists have linked to climate change. The legislation … could lead to profound changes in many sectors of the economy, including electric power generation, agriculture, manufacturing and construction.

It’s a large, complicated bill, but here’s the nut: The bill would set up a “cap and trade” system, setting a cap on overall emissions of heat-trapping gases in the U.S.; industries would have to buy permits, allowing them to pay $13 per ton of carbon dioxide emitted; manufacturers and utilities would then trade these carbon allowances among themselves. Essentially, they would pay to pollute. It would be phased in over time (the bill requires a 20 percent CO2 cut by 2020, a 42 percent cut by 2030, and an 83 percent cut by 2050), forcing manufacturers to come up with cleaner methods of production.

Slate writes that the 219-212 vote was one brief shining moment for the environment:

The bill would transform the U.S. economy in four decades, replacing the vast majority of American’s carbon dioxide emissions and fossil fuel consumption with a clean energy economy built around energy efficiency and renewable energy.

[It] would push tremendous amounts of low-carbon energy into the electric sector. Obama’s stimulus bill had already directed $90 billion toward clean energy, dramatically boosting projections of wind and solar and biomass energy penetration in the near term.

It doesn’t go as far as we need to — but it’s a start. And, best of all, to facilitate the program, the average American household would pay only $175 a year extra in energy costs by 2020. That amounts, as Slate writes, to “about a postage stamp a day.”

Still, Republicans predict it will devastate the economy. And word is it’s going to take a huge effort from Obama and his White House to get it through the Senate.

“No matter how you doctor it or tailor it,” Representative Joe Pitts, Republican of Pennsylvania, told the Times in a typical critique, “it is a tax.”

To which I would respond with a midrash, or interpretation, from last week’s Torah portion, about Korah’s failed rebellion against Moses and Aaron.

One tradition pictures Korah complaining about the tithes and offerings Moses demanded of the people, saying “You lay a heavier burden on us than the Egyptians did.” Korah, in this midrash, never mentions that these taxes were designed to help the poor, to maintain the sanctuary, and to give the Israelites ways of expressing their gratitude to God and their dependence on God.

To maintain the sanctuary.

No matter how you doctor it or tailor it, if we fail to address global warming, we are facing massive sea-level rise, widespread desertification, and a 10-degree fahrenheit rise over much of the inland U.S.

Would somebody mind telling me a single thing that this current crop of G.O.P. lawmakers is for?

Life is a Bridge

Friday, June 26th, 2009

I saw something this morning that at first confused me, then hit me in the guts.

I opened my New Yorker, turned to “Letter from Tehran: With the Marchers,” and noticed right away that there was no byline. I flipped ahead a few pages — was it at the end of the piece? — then back to the contributor’s page. The author of every other article was listed, along with a brief bio, but not this one.

Odd, I thought. In a magazine like the New Yorker, the author — what they do; what they’ve written — is almost always part of the point.

As I started reading, it became clear that the author was Iranian — knew it intimately enough to make observations like this, about two protesters:

Everything I have seen of Reza and Hengameh tells me that they are true democrats—for example, the relaxed way they have brought up their teen-age son, Mohsen. “We never obliged him to say his prayers or observe the Ramadan fast,” Reza told me once, “and now he does both, of his own accord.”

And it quickly became clear why the article was written anonymously:

On June 14th, two days after the election that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is alleged to have stolen from his main challenger, the reformist Mir-Hossein Moussavi, I hurried back to Iran from a trip abroad. The next day, the day of the AzadiStreet march, I had lunch with a journalist friend. In view of the election fiasco and the coverage that it had received abroad, my friend told me, the authorities were now trying to curtail the activities of the Western media. “If you want to write for a foreign magazine,” he said, “do it without a byline.” The authorities were refusing to extend the visas of most visiting foreign journalists; several Iranian journalists had been thrown in jail.

I blogged yesterday that “I (HEART) the Media“; this New Yorker article is another demonstration of why. Among other things, it contains the first anecdotal accounts I’ve seen that expose the election results as a sham. Who needs British think tanks, international monitors, or statisticians when you have this:

A change had also come over Mohsen, their son. The last time we met, he had been a typical teen-ager, sulky and monosyllabic. Now Mohsen seemed fully grown, an adult, and he participated enthusiastically in our conversation, which inevitably revolved around politics and the marches. Mohsenhad been active in Yussefabad on behalf of the local Moussavi campaign, standing on street corners and handing out leaflets. He had also run the Basiji gantlet, and had the bruises on his knees to prove it.

“Are you sure the election was a fraud?” I asked him.

Mohsen smiled ruefully. “Some of the boys from the campaign headquarters were at the local count, and when they came back that evening they were laughing and saying it was all over—Ahmadinejad had no chance. Then . . .” Mohsen shrugged, and his father said, “You should have seen this neighborhood. There was hardly a single Ahmadinejad poster. Only green. Only green! Of course it was a fraud. They stole the vote.”

The article makes the point that the protestors are not, as Ahmadinejad seems to want people to believe, limited to students and the educated class. Protestors are cut from a broad swath of society.

But to my mind, one of the most powerful moments in the piece is this one, near the end:

Ever since I’d known Reza, he’d made a point of not having a satellite dish on his roof. He distrusted the foreign television channels, and was content to watch Iranian state TV. During the recent election campaign, however, as state television praised Ahmadinejad endlessly, he had found it difficult to watch; it made him feel physically sick. He bought a satellite dish, so that the family can now watch the BBC’s Persian channel—or, at least, when it isn’t jammed. “It has shown us that everything we have been watching here, most of our lives, is full of lies,” he said.

“Give me an example,” I said, and he replied, “You know what they said on TV about yesterday’s march? They could hardly pretend it never happened, because it was all over the foreign channels and the Internet. So they announced that the rally had been organized by all four Presidential candidates, including Ahmadinejad, in the name of national unity!”

He said, “You can imagine what all this is doing to my father.” Reza’s father was a mid-level bureaucrat before his retirement, a few years ago. He adored Khomeini. He would have given his life for the Iranian Revolution. “You know what he said to me after he heard about the seven people who were shot last night? He said, ‘I regret everything I’ve done in my life.’ ”

Imagine, having such a misguided view of the world.

And yet …

I blogged the other day about how one remarkable aspect of this revolution for me, personally, is that it has — in one mighty swoop — transformed Iran from a nation of Jew hating evil-doers, into a nation of people. I’ve obviously never met Mohsen, but the description of him — its uncanny — it reminds me of my cousin Nate (“standing on street corners and handing out leaflets”), who worked his tail off in and around the streets of Philadelphia to elect Barack Obama.

I know I’m not the only one who feels this way.

Jon Stewart, for instance, sent Daily Show correspondent Jason Jones to Iran, prior to the election. Jones met a an elderly gentleman who knew the U.S. presidents, going back to Carter. He played American football on a grassy lawn with a group of kids. He interviewed a fashionista wearing Dolce & Gabbana and Adidas sneakers. (“Ah-dee-das?” Jones deadpanned.) A good-looking, flirty young couple admitted they were Daily Show watchers. (“Heh heh heh,” the guy said, imitating Jon Stewart’s imitation of George Bush.)

As it ended last night, Jason Jones — who went to cover the election, and wound up covering a revolution — said this:

“But as I watch what’s happening there now, I know that somewhere in that sea of faces are the same people I met. People who were gracious enough to take me into their homes, and schools, and coffee shops. People who indulge my asinine questions. People I hope will be safe, and not be harmed or arrested for the simple act of wearing green and wanting a voice.”

I watched, waiting for the punch line. But there was none. Not a trace of irony or sarcasm or mockery to be found. This, from the least sentimental reporter on the least sentimental television show in history.

“[You] spent ten days in Iran,” Jon Stewart told him, in studio, “and came back with amazing work and amazing pictures that revealed a certain part of Iran that I think many of us had never seen before.”

Last night, on my way home from a class about the Jewish thinker Soloveitchik, I called my dad to see how he was doing with my mom, who is recovering from a stroke.

“She’s a tiger,” he said, speaking about her will to get better.

One of the things my dad has always told us, in the tough times, is: “Life zigs and zags.” Last night, I told my dad that near the end of one of Soloveitchik’s works, one of the most brilliant theologians of our time concludes: “Man moves toward the fulfillment of his destiny along a zig-zag line.”

“All those years,” I told him. “You were really onto something.”

“Yeah,” he said, laughing, then quickly added: “And also, ‘Life is a bridge.'”

“Life is a bridge?” I said.

“”You don’t remember?”

“No,” I said.

So he began again:

Once upon a time, he said, there was a very wealthy man, determined to understand the meaning of life. He travelled far and wide, spending down his fortune, trying to figure out the answer. And then, one day, he learned of a Seer, a recluse, living high in the Mongolian Hills. The man began a long journey, spending his every last dime, searching for this wisest of men, until one day, high on the top of a mountain overlooking the whole of China, weak and hungry and depleted from his trek, the man finally found the Seer.

“Sir,” he said, “I’ve journeyed for months, spent my last dime to find you. Can you please tell me the meaning of life?”

The Seer looked out at the snow-capped peaks, closed his eyes. “Life,” he said, “is a bridge.”

“That’s it?” the man said. “Life’s a bridge?”

The Seer opened his eyes, looked up at the man, and said: “Life isn’t a bridge?”

Tens of thousands, perhaps millions, of Iranians have learned this in the past few weeks.

And so have we.

Why Obama Waited

Thursday, June 25th, 2009

“What took you so long?” Fox News correspondent Major Garrett heckled the president of the United States at his news conference this week, after the president condemned the Iranian government’s bloody crackdown on protestors.

And, as I predicted in my post the other day (you hardly needed a crystal ball), President Barack Obama’s critics have pushed each other out of the way to pile on this point.

“I’m glad the president finally did rise to the occasion here,” former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney told CBS, in one of the more muted statements, adding: “The president should have spoken from the very beginning expressing the fact that we will always stand with the forces of freedom throughout the world and we will oppose tyranny.”

It’s been well documented from the start that, before the Iranian revolution turned bloody, President Obama was trying to walk a fine line so as not to be seen as meddling. He didn’t want to give Iranian hardliners material that they could use as propaganda against peaceful protestors in the street.

But there is another, broader strategic reason he waited, as well. As Helene Cooper reports in The New York Times today:

“The White House and the West are calculating that … Mr. Obama’s measured stance will put the United States in a far better position to get Russia and China to agree to tough sanctions against Iran than if Mr. Obama had struck a strident note early on.”

As President Obama indicated to Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, he doesn’t intend to negotiate with Iran over its nuclear program beyond the end of the year. One form of pressure the United States can exert is the threat of economic sanctions — but that’s a paper tiger without the participation of Russia and China. If President Obama had come out hurling fire and brimstone the first day, as his detractors wanted him to do, he could have severely undermined the likelihood of assembling a broad international coalition, including Russia and China, to impose meaningful sanctions.

(Which, by the way, is exactly what Netanyahu is pressing for this week in Europe.)

In other words, despite what Major Garrett and the fulminating critics on the right apparently wanted to hear, President Obama’s measured response was not only thoughtful, it was strategic, and in the best long term national security interests of both the United States and Israel.

I (HEART) the Media

Thursday, June 25th, 2009

The story of Gov. Mark Sanford’s affair would never have broken, were it not for an anonymous tip, a hunch, and an enterprising reporter on the staff of The State, South Carolina’s biggest newspaper.

First, some background.

About six months ago, an anonymous tipster sent the newspaper copies of email exchanges between the governor and an alleged lover in Argentina named Maria. The newspaper emailed the woman, attempting to verify the authenticity of the emails, but never heard back.

Editors were skeptical. As editors should be.

“Because [Sanford] had not had a reputation for being a philanderer, we questioned its authenticity,” political editor Leroy Chapman told the New York Times.

So, in this age of instant news, the newspaper did the right thing: It sat on the story.

Then, last week, when the governor left his mansion without security, cops began talking. Politicians and government officials got wind of the disappearance, and told reporters. The governor’s staff claimed he was out hiking the Appalachian Trail. Tuesday, The State received another tip, from an airline passenger who had seen the governor on a plane, and said he would soon be returning on a flight from Argentina.

Based on the tip, Gina Smith, a political reporter for The State, went to the Atlanta airport to see if she could find the governor.

Here is an excerpt of her account:

It was about 6:15 a.m. Wednesday as I stood in the waiting area at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, squinting my eyes to see whether Gov. Mark Sanford was part of a crowd exiting the plane from Buenos Aires, Argentina.

“Is he there? Is he there?” I kept asking myself as I craned my neck, flipped on my digital recorder and booted up my digital camera. …

Then, my jaw dropped when Sanford appeared.

In the best muckraking tradition, Smith immediately snapped this picture (at right):

Sanford, clearly caught, suggested to Smith that the two sit down and chat in the terminal. In her column, she says the governor was nervous, measuring his words. She asked him if he had been alone in Argentina, and he lied, flat out: “Yes.”

He may not have been under oath, but doesn’t a governor have a moral obligation to be truthful, especially when dealing with the press? Reading her account, it’s hard not to think of this, from the Associated Press:

Sanford was a three-term U.S. House veteran who once cited “moral legitimacy” when he was a congressman voting for President Bill Clinton’s impeachment.

Now that the story has broken, The State has released the emails that they’ve been holding, responsibly, for half a year. In them, Sanford tells his lover about a meeting with John McCain, when he was being vetted as a possible VP candidate. (“The following weekend have been asked to spend it out in Aspen, Colorado with McCain — which has kicked up the whole VP talk all over again in the press back home.”)

Reading the emails is like watching a train wreck in slow motion. It makes you feel guilty and complicit in an ugly sort of way. On Thursday, July 10, for instance, Sanford wrote:

You have a particular grace and calm that I adore. You have a level of sophistication that is so fitting with your beauty. I could digress and say that you have the ability to give magnificently gentle kisses, or that I love your tan lines or that I love the curves of your hips, the erotic beauty of you holding yourself (or two magnificent parts of yourself) in the faded glow of night’s light — but hey, that would be going into the sexual details we spoke of at the steakhouse at dinner — and unlike you I would never do that!

Maria replied:

I don’t want to put the genius (sic) back in the bottle because I truly believe in freedom. I never gave you sexual details but now you don’t need to imagine you can close your eyes and just remember. I’ll do the same.

If Gina Smith doesn’t go to the airport with her camera, maybe none of this comes out. The governor is free to continue moralizing. Maybe he seeks the Republican nomination for president.

As newspapers across the country stop printing, or slash newsroom budgets, cutting back on community and state house reporting, ceding more and more ground to laptops and Blackberrys and the Twitter revolution, it’s important to keep in mind that we are losing so much more than just ink-stained fingers and piles of papers to recycle.

We are losing out on truth.

Mountain

Wednesday, June 24th, 2009

Well, South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford is the latest high ranking Republican with presidential aspirations to admit to cheating on his wife, following in the esteemed footsteps of Nevada Senator John Ensign, who came clean last week.

What kills me isn’t the news that he was having an affair. That will haunt Sanford, his wife, and four sons for the rest of their lives.

What kills me is just how easy it was for Republicans and the punditocracy to blame Democrats and the media for stoking the story of the governor’s disappearance.

Why not? They’ve been doing it since Watergate. (“This is a political effort by the Washington Post, well conceived and coordinated, to discredit this Administration and individuals in it,” Nixon press secretary Ron Ziegler said in an Executive Mansion press briefing in October, 1972.)

This is from The Washington Post’s The Fix this morning, prior to Sanford’s admission:

The whereabouts of South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford over the past five days has stoked a bitter battle both within the Republican Party and between the two parties about whether it is a serious problem with implications for his expected 2012 presidential bid or simply an overblown media story that amounts to much ado about nothing.

Opinions varied widely.

South Carolina state Sen. Greg Ryberg (R) called the story the work of “well documented Republican political adversaries of the governor” while South Carolina Adjutant General Richard Eckstrom (R) said that a “mountain was being made out of a molehill.”

Stu Rothenberg, a well-known Washington-based political analyst and Fix friend, said the incident highlighted coverage “how little most people in the media know about South Carolina politics and how easy it was for the governor’s critics — and for ambitious state politicians — to manipulate the media.”

Others, including some Republicans, said that Sanford’s behavior was newsworthy and revealed the perils inherent in the national spotlight that shines on any 2012 presidential aspirant.”

“Every candidate thinking about running for president showed his wife’s quote [That Sanford had skipped Father’s Day, and that she didn’t know where he was.-ND] to their
spouse this morning and asked them to PLEASE never make such a statement . . . ever,” said Scott Reed, a Republican consultant who managed former Sen. Bob Dole’s (R-Kan.) 1996 presidential bid.

A senior Republican consultant, who was granted anonymity to speak candidly, said that the Sanford incident “won’t help him at all and will hurt him a bit in that it reinforces what most folks think of him, which is that he is so much of a maverick that he is in fact one strange dude.” …

So, which is it? Mountain or molehill?

Nixon and the Jews

Wednesday, June 24th, 2009

I’ve always been uncomfortable with efforts to resuscitate Richard Nixon’s image.

They’ve been ongoing for some time.

“Mr. Nixon’s speech today seemed to mark a rite of passage in the rehabilitation of the former President,” the New York Times wrote in 1992, at a foreign policy conference, attended by dignitaries of both parties, at the Richard M. Nixon Library and Birthplace. “There was no direct mention of Watergate … Some of the luminaries and bit players who figured in the pain and successes of the Nixon Administration seemed convinced of his comeback today, and gave him a standing ovation after his speech.”

The story of Nixon’s failings, though, continue to trickle out, and they’re not limited to Watergate.

This morning’s New York Times has a story about newly released tapes and documents from the Nixon library, raising unsettling questions about how the president viewed Jews.

In a February 21, 1973 phone conversation with evangelist Billy Graham, the two discussed Jewish opposition to evangelical outreach efforts. (The Times writes: “Graham complained that Jewish-American leaders were opposing efforts to promote evangelical Christianity, like Campus Crusade.”) According to an excerpt, Nixon told Graham:

“Anti-Semitism is stronger than we think. You know, it’s unfortunate. But this has happened to the Jews. It happened in Spain, it happened in Germany, it’s happening — and now it’s going to happen in America if these people don’t start behaving. … It may be they have a death wish. You know that’s been the problem with our Jewish friends for centuries.”

Nixon was the first U.S. President to visit Israel, sitting down with Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1974, and pledging U.S. support to help Israel build a nuclear power station.

But at the same time, in his private conversations, he readily blamed anti-Semitism on Jews behaving badly, perpetuating dangerous stereotypes. And — shockingly, just 27 years after the Holocaust — he suggested to a leading Christian evangelist that the community had a “death wish.”

History must reflect this side of Nixon’s intellectual legacy, as well.